Friday, 1 July 2016

The Pianoforte Music of John Ireland by Katharine E. Eggar (Part II)

The ‘Rhapsody’ and the ‘London Pieces.’
The Rhapsody [1] is a noble composition, heroic in style, and is the longest and, in the composer's estimation, the most important of his piano works after the sonata. It is difficult, but not insurmountably so on the technical side. The rendering requires much insight, for there is nothing of the superficial showiness of the Lisztian Rhapsody about it: nor is it a mere string of inconsequent subjects, with ebullitions of meaningless excitement in between. The form is very compressed, and there is practically no repetition. (Mr. Ireland finds the Rhapsody a congenial mould for new ideas, and his latest orchestral [2] work has this title).
Of the three London Pieces [3] the delightful and original ‘Ragamuffin’ is probably the best known. Who does not enjoy the pert and sudden antics, the droll posturing, the tongue-in-cheek and mock decorum of this alluring little gutter-snipe? ‘Chelsea Reach’ is marked ‘Tempo di Barcarola’ and seems to embody the flow of the river and the clash of church bells. ‘Soho Forenoons’ is less frequently played, perhaps because the significance of the title has eluded people. Like Arnold Bax's clever sketch of the musicality of the Spanish, French and Italian Rivieras, which he calls Mediterranean, [4] it is the impression on an observer of the mixed foreign element that keeps the shops, frequents the restaurants and jostles one on the pavements of Soho. The indication of the tambourine, the snatches of Italian opera style and sundry ‘intentional crudities’ bring up very vividly the appropriate background of recollection.

In Country Mood.
In contrast to these impressions of London, Mr. Ireland has given us a couple of Countryside sketches—‘Amberley Wild Brooks’ [5] and ‘The Towing Path’[6]. Composers of the Mendelssohn period were inspired by the idea of brawling mountain torrents to write elegant pieces which meandered decorously through drawing rooms under the fingers of accomplished young ladies. Mr. Ireland, typical of our more wayward period, has been inspired by the (in reality) very sluggish little canals of the Amberley marshes, to give us all the freshness of their delicious name—the babbling music of a running stream with the joyous summer breeze above it.
In ‘The Towing Path’ he has succeeded in redeeming the time of 6/8 from its frequently banal associations, and investing it with the placid charm of a summer's day by the Thames—a charm as potent now as it was 350 years ago, when Spenser [7], depressed at his ‘long, fruitless stay’ at Court, walked forth to ease his pain.
Calme was the day, and through the trembling ayre
Sweete breathing Zephyrus did softly play....
When I.... walkt forth to ease my payne
Along the shoare of silver streaming Themmes,
Whose rutty bank, the which his river hemnmes,
Was painted all with variable flowers,
And all the meades adorned with daintie gemmes....
Sweete Themnmes! runne softly till I end my song. [8]

The very last piece that Mr. Ireland has written is another out-of-door impression. He calls it ‘On a Birthday Morning’[9] —a morning in the early year, ‘when wild March winds upon their errand sing,’ and a healthy mortal rejoices to feel their buffets. The music is full of joyous energy: its clear, bold melody swings along on a sharp, stimulating, regular rhythm, accumulating such an astonishing variety of harmony as to leave the listener at a first hearing rather breathless, it is still in manuscript, but will no doubt be in print very shortly, with a companion piece of quieter mood-called ‘Soliloquy’[10].

Musician's Music.
Of the published pieces, there remain to be mentioned the Four Preludes,[11] written 1913-1915, and the more recent ‘For Remembrance’[12].
Three of these I place in a special category. I should call them Musician's Music. ‘It's not a concert piece.’ said their author of the one for which I was expressing a particular affection; and to some musicians, no other recommendation will be needed. They have that peculiar quality of intimacy which makes some particular piece, or movement, or it may be only a passage, here and there among all the music that one knows, satisfying and precious in a way which cannot be explained. The three pieces I allude to are ‘The Holy Boy’, ‘The Undertone’ and ‘For Remembrance’.
The title of the first may have mystified some of us and set us wondering if it were a folk-tune. It is enough to say that Mr. Ireland has never used any modal tunes (except to make a vocal setting of ‘The Three Ravens’)[13], and that he wrote ‘The Holy Boy’ one Christmas Day, and in his transcriptions of it for violin and for 'cello has given it the sub-title of ‘A Carol of the Nativity’. But the appeal of all three pieces being of such a subtle kind, it is difficult to say anything about their beauties without brushing the bloom off the grape. Still, one may point out the skill of the craftsmanship. The basses in the Nativity Carol are a study in themselves, and the art by which the music's utter simplicity is achieved must be admired by any musician worthy of the name.
‘The Undertone’ is constructed on a repeated melodic figure in a measure of five, and the mood is sombre. A similar idea is carried out, with the greater freedom and resource which seven years' experience has brought, in ‘For Remembrance’. Not for those who feel affinity with music based on perfect abstraction from feeling and dependent on nothing but ingenuity in superimposing planes of tonal values, is the wistful tenderness of this short piece with its dragging semitones, its answering ascents and descents, its sudden smiles of harmony, its brief grandeurs of spacious trebled melody—bitter-sweet in its flavour as all intimate remembrance must be. Even among those who value music by their psychological response to it, there may be only a few to whom it will appeal. But to those few it will be a pearl of great price.
Katherine E. Eggar: The Music Teacher (June 1922) with minor edits to the text.




[1] The Rhapsody referred to here was completed during March 1915 and was first heard at the Aeolian Hall, London. The pianist was William Murdoch (1888-1942). A Rhapsody in C sharp minor has subsequently been discovered and is usually regarded as the First. It was composed around 1905.
[2] Mai-Dun: Symphonic Rhapsody for full orchestra was composed between 1920 and 1921. It was inspired by Maiden Castle in Dorset.
[3] John Ireland’s London Pieces for solo piano were composed between 1917 and 1920. The three character pieces are ‘Chelsea Reach’, ‘Ragamuffin’ (Autumn 1917) and ‘Soho Forenoons’ (February 1920). They are amongst the composer’s most popular and best loved piano pieces.
[4] Arnold Bax’s piano piece ‘Mediterranean’ was composed in 1920. Lewis Foreman has described it as ‘a classic musical picture postcard, probably evoking a holiday which Bax and musical friends…took in [Barcelona and] Majorca in 1913.’ It was later orchestrated in 1922.
[5] ‘Amberley Wild Brooks’ was the second of Two Pieces for solo piano composed by Ireland in 1921. It is a portrayal of an area of water meadows, ditches and streams just north of the village of Amberley in West Sussex. It has been described as a ‘musical watercolour.’
[6] ‘The Towing Path’ is a musical appreciation of the River Thames at Pangbourne. It was composed whilst Ireland was staying in the vicinity during 1918.
[7] Edmund Spenser (1552-99) was a renaissance English poet best remembered for his allegorical poem ‘The Faerie Queen.’ Other important works include the cycle of love sonnets, the ‘Amoretti’ and the pastoral ‘Epithalamion’ which was a celebration of the poet’s marriage to Elizabeth Boyle in 1594.
[8] From the opening 15 lines of Spenser’s ‘Prothalamion.'
[9] John Ireland wrote ‘On a Birthday Morning’ in 1922: it carries the dedication ‘Pro amicitia’ (For Friendship). The identity of the dedicatee was Arthur George Miller, who was a chorister at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea. It was his seventeenth birthday. Ireland and Miller were to become close friends during the nineteen thirties. Craggs reports that in 1932 Ireland made a will leaving all his estate to Miller. The composition was duly published in 1922 by Augener & Co.
[10] ‘Soliloquy’ is a short piano piece, written in 1922. It is dedicated to the pianist Edward Howard-Jones who gave the work’s first performance at the Wigmore Hall on 26 May 1922. Alan Rowlands suggested that the piece was inspired by ‘one of [John] Masefield’s shorter poems.’
[11] As Katharine Eggar notes, the [Four] Preludes were composed over a two year period.  Stewart R. Craggs (A Catalogue, Discography and Bibliography, 2nd Edition, Ashgate, 2007) cites the manuscript evidence for dating as follows: ‘The Undertone’ Chelsea, January 1914; ‘Obsession’ Autumn 1915; ‘The Holy Boy’ Chelsea 25 December 1915; ‘Fire of Spring’, Chelsea April 1915.  There first performance was given by Ireland at the Aeolian Hall on 7 June 1918. ‘The Holy Boy’ has been arranged in a number of versions.
[12] ‘For Remembrance’ is the first of ‘Two Pieces for solo piano’ composed in 1921. There is no suggestion that the title implies any particular memory. The mood of the piece is elegiac and makes use of Ireland’s typically bitter-sweet harmonies.
[13] ‘The Three Ravens’ is a rare setting by Ireland of a traditional melody and text. It was composed in 1919. The song has been arranged for cello and piano by Julian Lloyd-Webber.
Notes by J France.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

The Pianoforte Music of John Ireland by Katharine E. Eggar (Part I)

Katharine Emily Eggar was born in London on 5 January 1874. She studied piano in Berlin, Brussels and London and composition at the Royal Academy of Music with Frederick Corder. In 1911, along with Marion Scott and Gertrude Eaton, she was a founder member of The Society of Women Musicians.
Eggar had a great interest in the works of Shakespeare and maintained the theory that the plays were actually written by Edward de Vere, Lord Oxford.   She wrote a considerable amount of musical criticism, much of it concentrating on British works.
Her compositions were mainly for chamber ensemble and piano solo, but also include a number of songs.  Katharine Eggar died in London on 15 August 1961.
The Pianoforte Music of John Ireland was published in The Music Teacher: The Official Organ of the Music Teacher Association in Volume XIV, June 1922.

MR. IRELAND [1] is one of the few British composers who have published a piano sonata [2], and his work, written later than those by Benjamin Dale, Arnold Bax and Cyril Scott [3], is likely to rank high as a contribution to the slowly but steadily growing pile of modern British music which is helping us to win back our lost reputation as a ‘musical nation.’
To discuss the sonata itself adequately would, however, require more than the whole space at my disposal for this article; but as, since its first performance last Spring by Lamond [4], it has been played by such capable interpreters as Howard-Jones, Winifred Christie, Lloyd Powell, Ralph Lawton and Edward Mitchell [5], I may hope that a fair proportion of my readers have had the opportunity of hearing it.

Sincerity.
I remember saying in my article on Arnold Bax's piano music that it was the fashion to speak of him as ‘obscure’ and ‘diffuse.’ I find that it is the fashion in speaking of John Ireland to say that he is ‘crude.’ Many people kindly add to this—‘but sincere.’
It is difficult to know what people mean by tags like this—sometimes they don't know themselves—but personally I do not consider that ‘crude’ is a correct term to apply to this composer, for there is nothing crude, i.e., raw, about his workmanship. I should say that he prizes clarity of thought and conciseness of expression above everything, and he has won them by long wrestling with chaotic thought and emotion and intense difficulty of utterance. As he says himself: ‘One may sometimes be intentionally crude’; but I do not think you will ever surprise him in half-baked work. ‘Sincere’ is the truer term, and, allowing for the occasional ‘intentional crudities,’ I find his music in other aspects sincerely gentle, sincerely tender, sincerely delicate, sincerely restrained, But as it is obvious that many people will approach the pieces prejudiced by rumour, I will endeavour more definitely to disarm them by suggesting three reasons which I believe may underlie the prevailing notion.

Clearing away some misconceptions.
To begin with, Mr. Ireland is a composer of great vigour, and great vigour is apt to be expressed with more violence than grace. He also does not think it worthwhile to state the obvious, or, at any rate, not to the point of being platitudinous. Now, sometimes the obvious is very comforting, and any of us may be misjudged, as composers or in any other human relationship, though not knowing when what is obvious to ourselves is not so to our vis-â-vis. I can well imagine a new acquaintance, missing some of the expected conventional small-talk and padding in Mr. Ireland's conversation, murmuring the above-quoted tag and turning to a more urbane writer.
The second reason I have to suggest would only have weight with the people who make the rules of four-part harmony the criterion of pianoforte writing. To such people, Mr. Ireland's writing must appear to be bristling with false relations and may very well appear to them as ‘crude.’ ‘Why, the man seems to be ignorant of the first principles of correct writing,’ one can imagine them exclaiming in pious indignation.
Mr. Ireland himself was much amused at this idea of the ‘Thou shalt nots’ of harmony. ‘No, of course you mustn't use false relation when you're learning to write four-part harmony, but there's no reason why you shouldn't use it when you have learnt how to write. Every note has some relationship to every other note, and if nowadays we take notes which used only to be allowed as passing notes, and neither prepare for them beforehand nor get rid of them by resolution afterwards, we are only avoiding saying what has become obvious. The new relationships become familiar by degrees. I'm not a musical Bolshevist. In fact, I always feel that my harmony is years behind the times’ when I see what really modern people are doing. I don't write in two different planes of tonality at the same time, well, in this sort of way.’ He opened a score of Le Sacre du Printemps [6] which lay on the piano, and played a few bars. ‘O yes, you do,’ I retorted, ‘only you do it much more beautifully than Stravinsky. Whereas he makes us writhe under shrieks of dissonance, you soothe and charm us with the delicious evanescence of a ‘Moon-glade.’[7] But you must allow that the harmonies of the ‘dual melodic lines’ of this, to ears whose owners are conscientiously struggling to distinguish between ‘essential’ and ‘unessential’ discords, seem very daring and more than a little mysterious.’ He admitted the probability, adding: ‘Of course, you must learn historically. It's no good to hand a pupil Stravinsky's Rite at his first lesson and say: “Now go and write something like that.” People must begin at the beginning.’

Faults in the Player.
My third suggestion is the somewhat insulting one that players produce the crudities they object to by too loud playing and by wrong emphasis of particular ingredients. Certainly some of Mr. Ireland's directions are not easy to follow, but they are always given with meticulous care and perfect clearness, and if exact attention is paid to them, the result arrived at may be a very different sound-picture from that produced by preconceived methods of interpretation. For instance, his marking of stresses needs to be very carefully inspected, and his instructions for pedalling taken absolutely literally, in order to produce the effects he intends. It is the same with his rhythmical indications, his tempo-marks and his use of terms to indicate mood. There is nothing haphazard: they are not the capricious markings of an uncertain temperament, or one too impatient to analyse his own renderings.

The gradual absorption of a style.
There is no ‘dodge’ by which to play a composer acceptably except that of getting gradually to know his idiom; and ‘every composer has his own idiom of melody, his own idiom of harmony, his own idiom of rhythm,’ said Mr. Ireland. ‘He will have his own, idiom of configuration, too—that is, if he has any style.’
There is no doubt that Mr. Ireland has a style. And however original his thought and idiom may be, his piano-writing is as truly pianistic as anything Chopin ever gave us. It is genuine keyboard music, lying naturally for the hands. One of the resources of the instrument which he has explored to our great enrichment is the use of the bell-tone —the true percussion-produced harmonic richness—of the mechanism. The pieces contain frequent hints for ‘a chime-like sonority,’ and some of the passages reveal the most enchanting effects, most refreshing to the ear sated with heavy harmonies and laboured reiterations of key. The final bars of the already-quoted ‘Moon-glade’ (No. 2 of the Decorations) are a case in point. In fact, they might be suggested as an introduction to the study of the composer by way of counteractive to the ‘crudity’ bogey! For no one could let those vapour-like harmonies rise from the fundamental and float away into silence without realising that he has another and a very different side.

‘The Island Spell.’
The first piece in the same book, The Island Spell, [8] also depends greatly on the proper conception of tone, the free percussion action necessary to give the chime-like ring of the upper notes over the ‘clear, delicate sonority’ of the repeated figure in the middle pitch. This is one of the most frequently played of John Ireland's pieces, but, so says the composer, it is very rarely rendered as he likes it. Here is an instance where the subtleties of stress and pedalling are all-important, and although the music reaches a tremendous climax of tone on page 6, [9] it should make its effect through a particular kind of emotional and mental thrill rather than by physical noise. The passage leading up to this should surge gradually towards it, each sweep of demisemiquavers like a wave (‘ not like a finger exercise ‘), the rhythm which culminates in the martellato passage being most strictly rendered as written, and then it should as gradually recede and melt away into the tranquillity and distance of the final page.
The third of the Decorations, entitled ‘The Scarlet Ceremonies’, is very seldom played [10], Mr. Ireland finds, probably on account of its sheer fatiguingness. An accompaniment figure has to be kept going with great brilliance the whole time, and of course it is no use if the scarlet has become pale pink before the end! But still one would think that the delightful fantastic notion of the title would have allured many of our brilliant pianists, for whom finger difficulties do not seem to exist.



[1] John Nicholson Ireland (1879-1962) composer, pianist and teacher of music. He is best remembered for his piano music and songs.
[2] John Ireland’s Sonata in E minor-major for piano was composed during 1918-20. It was revised in 1951. The work is in three movements: 1. Allegro moderato, 2. Non troppo lento and 3. Con moto moderato.
[3] Benjamin Dale (1885-1943), Arnold Bax (1883-1953), Cyril Scott (1879-1970) were three composers who added significantly to the piano repertoire of the first half of the 20th century. Dale’s Sonata in D minor was composed during 1902-5. Bax wrote a number of Sonatas for piano, including five that remain unpublished or lost. At the time of writing the present article, Katharine Eggar would have known the First Piano Sonata (F sharp minor) composed in 1910, but revised between 1917 and 1921 and the Second Piano Sonata (G major) written in 1919 and revised the following year. Both were published in 1921. The Sonata No.3 (G sharp minor) appeared in 1926 followed by the Sonata No.4 (G major) in 1932.  By 1922, Cyril Scott had written two sonatas. The unnumbered Sonata, op.17 from 1901 was unpublished and was later re-worked as the ‘Handelian Rhapsody’ in 1909. The original Sonata has been recorded by Leslie De’ath on Dutton Epoch (CDLX7155). In 1908 Scott issued his Sonata No.1, op.66. This work was subsequently revised in 1910 and later in 1935. The year 1935 also saw the publication of his Sonata No.2 and Sonata No.3 was completed in 1955. 
[4] Frederic Lamond (1868-1948) was a Scottish concert pianist and composer. He studied piano with Franz Liszt and Hans von Bulow.  For many years he had his home in Berlin, finally settling in London at the outbreak of the Second World War. He composed much music including a symphony, a concert overture, piano pieces and chamber music. Lamond gave the first performance of the Ireland Sonata in E minor-major for solo piano at the Wigmore Hall on 12 June 1920.
[5] Evelyn Howard-Jones (1877-1951), Winifred Christie (1882-1965), Lloyd Powell (1888-1975), Ralph Lawton and Edward Mitchell were pianists active during the first half of the 20th century.
[6] Le Sacre du Printemps by Igor Stravinsky. It was composed for the Diaghilev’s 1913 Paris Season and the score was published that year.
[7] ‘Moon-Glade’ was the second piece in John Ireland’s Decorations for solo piano, composed at Chelsea in 1913.
[8] ‘The Island Spell’ was the first of the three Decorations. It was inspired by the seascapes of Jersey. The score is dated ‘Fauvic, Jersey: August 1912’.
[9] This is signed in the score as Mosso (movement) –con forza e martellato (with strength and hammered!) and consists of massive parallel triads with the octave in the right hand with added notes played in the left hand. They are played fff.
[10] The three Decorations are now usually recorded or played as a set. 

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Overtures from the British Isles – Volume 2 on Chandos

This CD gets off to a cracking start with William Walton’s Portsmouth Point Overture. The music imaginatively ‘evokes’ the atmosphere of a Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) print which depicts a busy port scene that lies somewhere between a Hogarth etching and a set for HMS Pinafore or Ruddigore. All life is here: lovers kissing, stevedores loading ships, sailors fighting and fiddlers fiddling.  Walton’s musical recreation of the cartoon is one of the masterpieces of the genre.

Walter Leigh’s wrote his ‘Jubilee Overture’ in 1935 for the Jubilee Celebrations of King George V. Two years later, it was renamed Agincourt and was broadcast as part of the Coronation celebrations for King George VI. It is splendid work that balances a number of themes including a swashbuckling, Elgarian march tune and the reflective ‘Agincourt’ song. There is a version of this overture on Lyrita, SRCD.95 with the New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite. Leigh is also remembered for his vibrant Overture: Helter Skelter and the rollicking Jolly Roger Overture from the once popular operetta.

York Bowen’s Fantasy Overture, op.115 is the only ‘premiere recording’ on this new CD. I agree with Ian Lace that it is not one of the composer’s best efforts. It was first broadcast in 1946 and was promptly forgotten. Basically, it is a set of variations on the Charles Dibdin’s tune ‘Tom Bowling’ (best recalled today as the cello solo from Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs) it nevertheless lends itself to varied treatment.  The composer introduces other material into the overture, including a hornpipe. It is a well-constructed, finely scored, and sometimes quite moving piece that does not really deserve oblivion. If I am honest, I would rather they had recorded the powerful, Festal Overture, op.89 (1929). 

Dame Ethel Smyth is better-known for her opera The Wreckers than for The Boatswain’s Mate. This latter work was a one-act comic opera dating from 1914. The libretto was based on a retired boatswain’s attempt to persuade a widowed pub landlady to marry him. In spite of the ‘comedic’ nature of the story, the music in the overture is sometimes a little serious. This would seem to slightly more profound music than the plot of the operetta would suggest.

Staying with the salt-tang of the sea, John Ansell’s wonderfully evocatively Plymouth Hoe is a string of nautical pearls. It is a jolly, rousing piece that opens with the hornpipe, ‘Jack’s the Lad’, features ‘The Saucy Arethusa’, hints of HMS Pinafore and closes with ‘Rule Britannia’. Once a popular work, also featuring in brass and military band repertoires, it has made a comeback in recent years. Most recently it was played at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ in 2014.

The Britannia Overture, op.52 by Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie is a masterclass in taking popular tunes and weaving them into a well-constructed and largely satisfying concert work. It was composed around 1894 when Britain truly ‘ruled the waves’ and Jack Tar was a hero of the Empire.  Once again the composer makes use of ‘Rule Britannia’ as well as the hornpipe ‘Jack the Lad.’

Eric Coates delightful The Merrymakers: Miniature Overture was completed in 1923 and represents the composer’s arrival at his mature style. It does have hints of Edward German and Edward Elgar, but mostly it is pure Coates. A little unusually for this composer, it is conceived in sonata form, although Michael Payne has described this a being somewhat ‘loose.’  Coates was to write much orchestral music but there was never to be another overture.

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s heartfelt Overture to an Unwritten Tragedy has been recorded twice in the past 45 years. Firstly, on the 1971 Lyrita LP, SRCS.48, also featuring the composer’s superb Symphonic Variations, the Lady Radnor Suite and the English Suite. Sir Adrian Boult conducted the London Symphony Orchestra.  I guess that this was many peoples’ introduction to Parry’s orchestral music since it remained largely un-played after his death in 1918. Chandos released the important cycle of symphonies in the 1990s coupled with some other works, but did not include this overture. It was released on the Hyperion survey of British Overtures in 1991, CDH66515. 
The Overture to an Unwritten Tragedy was a commission for the 1893 Three Choirs Festival at Worcester. There is no programme associated with the music, however the contemporary critic Herbert Thomson guessed that it echoed Shakespeare’s Othello. This was confirmed by the composer. The listener does not have to concentrate hard to hear echoes of Elgar (or was it the other way round?) The first and second themes can be said to reflect the jealous but noble character of Othello and the virtue and affection of Desdemona respectively.

I have always loved Roger Quilter’s Children’s Overture. I came across the piano reduction of the score many years ago and managed to plays bits of it. It is surprisingly tricky (at least for me). I first heard the orchestral version on an old LP of light music recorded by Sir Vivian Dunn conducting the Light Music Society Orchestra released in 1969 (TWO 295, LP, reissued on EMI Arabesque 3037, CD).  Since then it has received a number of recordings. One of the interesting things about this overture is that as each successive generation passes away, the ‘children’s tunes cited in the overture seemingly become less-well-known. Writing in The Gramophone in November 1936, W.W. Johnson suggested that more than half the tunes were ‘strange to children of twelve.’  I suggest that 80 years on, the situation has got worse. In spite of all this, it is a lovely work, beautifully scored and guaranteed to bring a nostalgic tear to the eye.

John Foulds’ Overture: Le Cabaret was once popular with concertgoers; like many pieces it fell out of favour. In 1993 it was released on Lyrita CD, SRCD.212. The overture was originally part of the incidental music composed in 1921 for a play about the 19th century mime-actor Jean-Gaspard Deburau. Foulds reworked it into the present form in 1934. This is a light-hearted piece that is full of verve and swagger. It is good that it had been revived again here.

The liner notes by Lewis Foreman are excellent and give helpful information about the composers and their respective overtures. I do wonder why the batting order of these notes differs to that of the tracklisting.

It may be regarded as bad form for a reviewer to conclude, like Oliver, by asking for more, especially when this disc has presented such a wealth of attractive music. However, I would love to see a disc of mid-twentieth century concert overtures, just to bring the current project up to date. This CD could include such potential gems as Alan Bush’s Liverpool Overture, Hans Gal’s Overture to a Puppet Play, Dorothy Howell’s The Rock (Impressions of Gibraltar), Robin Milford’s Sir Walter’s Overture, Robin Orr’s Prospect of Whitby, Franz Reizenstein’s Cyrano de Bergerac, Alan Ridout’ Bevis, John Veale’s Metropolis, and to avoid argument from the other end of the East Lancs. Road, Anthony Burgess’s A Manchester Overture.  

Meanwhile, listeners will thoroughly enjoy the musical adventures on this second volume of ‘Overtures from the British Isles’ which are beautifully played by Ramon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. It is a worthy successor to Volume 1 which included music by Cowen, Bantock, Stanford and others.

Track Lisitng:-
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Portsmouth Point (1924-25)
Walter LEIGH (1905-1942)
Agincourt (1935)
York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Fantasy Overture, op.115 premiere recording (1945)
Dame Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
Overture to The Boatswain’s Mate (1913-14)
John ANSELL (1874-1948)
Plymouth Hoe (1914)
Sir Alexander Campbell MACKENZIE (1847-1935)
Britannia, op.52 (1894)
Eric COATES (1886-1957)
The Merrymakers (1923)
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
Overture to an Unwritten Tragedy (1893 rev. 1894, 1905)
Roger QUILTER (1877-1953)
A Children’s Overture (1911-19)
John FOULDS (1880-1939)
Le Cabaret, op.71a (c. 1921 rev. 1934)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rumon Gamba
CHANDOS CHAN10898 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Frederick Delius: In a Summer Garden

I recently read in Martin Lee-Browne and Paul Guinery’s magisterial study, Delius and his Music (The Boydell Press, 2014) that the tone-poem In a Summer Garden had a number of working titles before the composer settled on the current one. I had not realised this.
These included:-  Summer Night, Rhapsody, Summer Sounds, Summer Rhapsody, A Summer Eve, A Summer Song, Summer, On a Summer’s Eve and A Song of Summer. This last option was eventually used in a different work written with the help of Delius’ amanuensis, Eric Fenby in 1929.
The working title of the present piece was ‘Summernight -slowly with simplicity.’  Browne and Guinery suggest that A Summer Rhapsody was the composer’ preferred title. It is not known when Delius opted for In a Summer Garden, however this is the title that was used in the work’s premiere and has not changed since, in spite of the fact that the score was revised four years later.
The score of the In a Summer Garden include two quotations which may or may not inform the listener’s pleasure. The first is from one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnets:-
‘All are my blooms; and all sweet blooms of love.
To thee I gave while Spring and Summer sang.’

The second was probably penned, in German, by Delius himself:-
‘Roses, lilies, and a thousand sweet scented flowers. Bright butterflies, flitting from petal to petal and gold-brown bees murmuring in the warm, quivering summer air. Beneath the shade of the old trees, a quiet river with water-lilies. In a boat, almost hidden, two people. A thrush is singing- in the distance.

I have always imagined this work to be about an English garden, however the facts are that it was Delius’ summer garden at Grez-sur-Loing in France that gave the inspiration.

In a Summer Garden was first heard at a Royal Philharmonic Concert given at in 11 December 1908. The composer conducted. My favourite version of this piece is by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Anthony Collins. 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Herbert Howells: Canticles for King's College on Hyperion

The main event on this superb new CD from Hyperion is the complete cycle of the Morning and Evening Canticles and Communion Service composed specifically for King’s College, Cambridge. The listener is reminded that the ‘libretto’ for these liturgical masterpieces is by Thomas Cranmer as found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and as revised in the deposited prayer book of 1928. These words are amongst the supreme achievements of the English language. Unfortunately, it has been displaced in many Anglican churches in favour of the pedestrian language of the committee-designed Common Worship and other experimental liturgies which have sought to make Cranmer’s language more relevant to 21st century worshippers. Matins, Evensong and Holy Communion are presented in all their verbal glory and majesty on this CD.

During the Second World War, Herbert Howells took over playing at St John’s College, Cambridge, when the organist Robin Orr was on military service. The Anglican services inspired Howells to compose settings of the canticles. He has stated that these were written with the particular building in mind. Collegium Regale was the earliest, being completed in 1945. Services for Gloucester (1946), Canterbury (1946), St Paul’s (1951) and others were to follow.

The first part of Collegium Regale to be composed were the Jubilate and the Te Deum from Matins. The mood of these two canticles are typically optimistic and outward-looking, which may be surprising bearing in mind they were written during 1944.

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (1945) which resulted from a challenge issued to the composer by Dean Milner-Whyte of York and Dr Boris Ord who was then-organist and choir master at King’s College. Howells made a promise that ‘the mighty should be put down from their seat without a brute force that would deny this canticle’s feminine association’ as the Song of Mary. The Nunc Dimittis echoes the meekness of Simeon. All the stops are pulled out for the Gloria in both cases.

Ten years later, Howells wrote a setting of the Communion Service for King’s College. The liner notes remind the listener that the composer made musical reference to the earlier canticles in this settings. Howells was composing by this time in a ‘leaner, less sensual and impressionistic’ style towards a more ‘astringent’ sound. However, there is no doubt that any worshipper attending a full diet of worship (Matins, Holy Communion & Evensong) at King’s College (or any ‘quires and places where they sing’) where the full Collegium Regale was being used, would find the music both unified and satisfying from a liturgical and artistic point of view.

The liner notes do not give dates for the settings of Psalms 121‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills’ and 122 ‘I was glad when they said unto me.’ It is suggested that it may have been around the time when Howells was a student at the Royal College of Music.  These are ‘simple’ chants traditionally used by choirs at Matins on the ‘Morning of the Twenty-Seventh Day’. Howells has contributed two worthy examples of the genre, which are both characterised by a degree of sadness and introspection. 

The Rhapsody in D flat major for organ the first of three Rhapsodies composed between 1915 and 1918. There was to be a Fourth example in 1958.  This present work is often claimed to be a musical picture of the magnificent view from Chosen Hill, near Gloucester. It is certainly a romantic, impressionistic piece. The music is in arch form beginning and ending quietly and bookending a stunning climax. It is one of the highlights of English organ music.

Two short anthems are given. ‘I love all beauteous things’ which is a setting of the English poet Robert Bridges (1844-1930) who was also a friend of the composer. It was composed in 1977 for a festival service celebrating the ‘Hands of the Craftsman’ at St Alban’s Abbey. It is a sympathetically constructed piece that reflects the words of the poem and Howells’ desire to create something truly beautiful.
The other anthem takes Psalm 84 9-10 as its text – ‘Behold, O God our defender, and look upon the face of thine anointed.’ This was first heard at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953. It is thoughtful and sensitive in its restrained exposition of the text.

I would have preferred the track listings to have been a wee bit more specific as to which pieces on this CD were composed for King’s College and elsewhere. The dates of each work would have been useful here as well. The liner notes themselves, written by Paul Andrews are excellent and deliver all the details and dates required a well as setting the ‘Collegium Regale’ music into context. Texts of all the pieces are provided.  A specification of the organ is also printed.

I cannot fault the singing, the organ playing or the interpretation of this music. The Choir of Trinity College with their director Stephen Layton, give commanding and poignant performances of these subtle and moving works. The organist Eleanor Kornas and Owain Park both make major contributions to the success of this disc.  The choir chose the stunning setting of Sir Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral (I am not so struck on his design for the Hyde Park Cavalry Barracks or the now demolished Hutcheson ‘C’ Flats in the Gorbals) with its impressive Harrison and Harrison organ (1962), to feature this music, much of which was composed for a chapel some 85 miles away.

In 2002 Ronald Ebrecht edited a book entitled Maurice Durufle: The Last Impressionist. I would contend that the honour for this designation could well be shared with Herbert Howells. Howells, in his liturgical music (and elsewhere) has created a perfect fusion of impressionism and romanticism, sometimes tinged with something a little more acerbic that seems to define the English landscape with the Houses of God firmly planted in her soil. Nowhere is this more apparent than it the settings for King’s College Cambridge, presented on this CD..

Track Listing:-
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Collegium Regale: Morning Canticle (1944): Jubilate
Collegium Regale: Evening Canticle (1945): Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis
Psalm 122 (?)
I love all beauteous things (1977)
Collegium Regale: Office of Holy Communion (1956)
Psalm 121 (?)
Behold, O God our defender (1952)
Rhapsody in D flat major, op.17, no.1 (1915)
Collegium Regale: Te Deum (1944)
The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/ Stephen Layton, Eleanor Kornas (organ), Owain Park (organ)
HYPERION CDA68105 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Sir John’s 1962 Recording of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

When I was first allowed to explore the record collection in the Coatbridge High School music department library, I made a number of startling discoveries. This would be around 1971. We were lucky to be able to borrow these records (with permission) for ‘homework’ listening. At this time, I had begun to discover the rich treasury of British Music which has kept me engaged for the past 45 years (along with other nationalities, I hasten to add). In spite of it being a Scottish school, there was precious little music composed by native composers on record at that time. I think there was only Sir Alexander Gibson’s fine recording of Hamish MacCunn’s The Land of the Mountain and the Flood.  (ASD 2400, 1968).

I had already borrowed Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, coupled with his heart-breaking Sospiri issued on a 78 rpm double-disc set (HMV DB 3198-9). In those days every ‘home’ radiogram had a ‘changer’ for playing 78s! The music was performed by Sir Adrian Boult with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and had been recorded in March 1937. I was bowled over, and still regard it as my favourite version of this piece.
So it was with some delight that I found an LP of Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Cockaigne Overture and the Enigma Variations. I guess it was the sleeve that immediately impressed me, rather than thoughts about the music, about which I had little clue. The man on the bicycle was clearly meant to be the composer. It seemed to epitomise for me, aged 15, all that I loved about the few pieces of English music I had then heard, the poetry of Hardy and Housman and the landscape. At that time I had not seen the BBC ‘Monitor’ film by Ken Russell (first shown on BBC TV, Sunday 11 November 1962)

The details of the album are straightforward. Both works were recorded at the Kingsway Hall during 27-8 August 1962. It was issued in 1963 on the HMV label (ASD 548 Stereo and ALP 1998 Mono). Over the years, this recording has been re-presented on many occasions: on LP, Cassette, CD and download. The Cockaigne Overture is currently available on EMI CDM 7 64511 2 (1993) coupled with the Symphony No. 1 in A flat. The ‘Enigma’ Variations was released on EMI CDM 5 66322 2 (1997). It is coupled with Falstaff. There is also a boxed set containing both works.
One unfortunate result of recording technology at that time was that the listener had to turn the record over for the finale (Variation 14) of the ‘Enigma Variations’. I do not recall it bothering me: that was life in those days.

The original album was reviewed by T.H. (Trevor Harvey) in The Gramophone magazine (November 1963).  He began his assessment by suggesting that ‘any temptation I felt to say, “Oh, dear! Yet another recording of the Enigma” soon disappeared when I began to listen, for this is emphatically not just “another recording”: It is an absolutely outstanding performance.’  He was impressed by the sound engineering which delivers every nuance of ‘Barbirolli’s care’ towards the music. The balance is ‘first rate’ and ‘nothing that happens down below in the ‘cellos and basses is missed.’
The performances of both works by Sir John and the Philharmonia are ‘right from the heart’ and ‘always guided by the head.’ The ‘Enigma’ Variations ‘come from a conductor who has had them inside himself all his life, yet at this performance seems to love them more than ever…’

I am privileged to have been introduced to one of the greatest masterpieces of English music by way of Sir John’s fine recording. And the Cockaigne Overture is pretty good to. I remember being bowled over by the ‘lovers walking in the London Park’ theme. I could not get it out of my head. I still hum, whistle and sing this tune 45 year later. 

Monday, 13 June 2016

Adrian Cruft: Divertimento for string orchestra, op.43 (1963)

Adrian Cruft’s (1921-87) Divertimento for string orchestra, op.43 was written to celebrate John Hollingsworth’s (1916-63) twenty-first season as conductor of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Symphony Orchestra in 1963.  Sadly, Hollingsworth died suddenly on 29 December of that year.

The Divertimento is approachable and is largely ‘diatonic’ in the working out of its material. The power and vitality of the opening ‘moderato, ma con brio’ is never in doubt. The strong second subject is lyrical and typical of much twentieth-century English string writing.  The composer stated that he ‘makes fun of odd intervals’ such as the melodic 7th and 9th that are often expected in ‘contemporary music.’  

The slow movement, ‘andantino quasi moderato,’ opens with a ‘haunting three-note figure’ which dominates the proceedings. The strings present a lovely cantilena that soars above a somewhat stuttering ‘block-chord’ accompaniment. The composer suggested that the pace of this movement is ‘a fast blues or slow foxtrot.’  The programme notes explain that in the middle section there is a brief allusion to the folk song ‘Cherry Ripe’. This is apposite when the listener recalls that both Cruft and Hollingsworth worked at Covent Garden – the opera house, not the market! This is introverted music and certainly not light-hearted.
Roderick Swanston, writing in the Musical Times (March 1991) considered that this movement is a good example of Cruft’s working procedure: ‘At its simplest this often took the form of an accompaniment that was as musically interesting as the melody it accompanied...Cruft gave the figure a life of its own, and thus enabled it to comment on the main figure it accompanied’.

Swanston points out that the composer has introduced the last movement with ‘38 bars that do not display much contrapuntal ingenuity or melodic flair, but by the simple repetition and modification of a rhythm accompanying a slowly-rising melodic phrase, a distinctive power emerges quite disproportionate to the simple means used to achieve it.’  The final section of this movement is a Tarantella, played ‘allegro, ma comodo’: it is not quite as ‘leisurely’ as the direction would seem. It has nods towards William Walton in its rhythmic vitality. The work concludes with a reference to the opening three notes of the first movement.

In Gerald Larner’s sleeve notes to the only recording of this work, he writes: ‘The striking introduction to the first movement, with its important three-note rhythmic figure is reflected in the serious introduction to the last movement.’ He considers that the work ‘is remarkable more for the delicacy of its scoring and the ingenious charm of its melodies, than for structural complexity.’ Larner has suggested the work’s attraction ‘rests in its friendly informality.’

The Divertimento was published by Novello in 1966. Peter Dickinson, reviewing the score in the Musical Times (January 1966) suggested that it was ‘accessible’. He notes that the ‘first and last of the three movements are concerned with a diatonic tone-cluster [a group of at least three adjacent notes, played together] which becomes the background to melodic writing.’ Dickinson’s only criticism is that that ‘some of the material, particularly in the first movement, is repetitive,’ however he feels that ‘altogether the composer achieves a successful and personal balance of contrasted textures.’

The first performance of Adrian Cruft’s Divertimento was at the Assembly Hall, Royal Tunbridge Wells, on Sunday 6 October 1963 at 3 pm. The             Royal Tunbridge Wells Symphony Orchestra was conducted by John Hollingsworth. Other works at this concert included Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, op.80, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, op.18 and Anton Dvorak’s Symphony No. 2 [7] in D minor, op.70. The piano soloist was Peter Katin.  After the interval, ‘His Worship the Mayor’ made a presentation to John Hollingsworth. The list of orchestral players included in the programme indicates that Adrian Cruft was the then Principal Double Bassist.

In 1967, the Divertimento was released on the Pye Virtuoso label (TPLS 13005) coupled with John McCabe’s Symphony No.1 (Elegy), op.40 (1965) and Kenneth Leighton’s Concerto for string orchestra, op.39 (1962). John Snashall conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra.  Malcolm Macdonald in The Gramophone (January 1968) wonders if the Divertimento ‘might be thought to be on the serious side.’  It is fair to adduce that some of Mozart’s works with the same title are not all whimsical. He praises the ‘quality of the string writing’ and concludes by suggesting that the work must have ‘successfully fulfilled its original function, the celebration of John Hollingsworth’s majority as conductor…’  On the other hand, Peter J. Pirie in the Musical Times (April 1968) suggested that it was a ‘likeable work, a little anonymous, but it is a slight piece anyway.’ 
Listening to this work nearly half a century later divulges music that is a little more serious and profound than this review may suggest. I believe that there is an elegiac mood to the ‘slow’ movement that, in hindsight, is an appropriate tribute to John Hollingsworth. Certainly, this is a valuable ‘divertimento’ that can be as highly regarded as those by Michael Tippet, Alan Rawsthorne, Lennox Berkeley and Malcolm Arnold.

At present there is no commercial recording available, although there is a YouTube upload.  In fact, Cruft is currently represented on CD by three works, the Traditional Hornpipe Suite, the Concertante for clarinet and strings and the short choral piece, ‘These Hours.’

John France April 2016

With thanks to Giles Clarke, Chairman of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Symphony Orchestra for his invaluable help in securing a copy of the programme for the premiere of this work, and his kind permission to quote from the programme notes for Cruft’s Divertimento.


Friday, 10 June 2016

British Clarinet Concertos on Chandos

Benjamin Britten’s Movements for a clarinet concerto is one of the most enjoyable pieces that the composer never (quite) wrote. As Christopher Palmer said (liner notes, Hyperion CDH 55060) it is ‘definitely a work that should have been finished.’
During Britten’s wartime sojourn in the United States he had discussions about the possibility of composing a Clarinet Concerto for the famous American band-leader and clarinettist Benny Goodman.  Goodman had recently commissioned the exiled Béla Bartok to write the trio Contrasts. He was to invite Copland, Morton Gould, Poulenc and Arnold to compose works for his performance. 
When Britten left the USA to return to the United Kingdom in 1942, the manuscript sketches of his concerto were impounded by customs: it was believed that they contained secret code.  Work was suspended as Britten completed Peter Grimes, and Goodman latterly decided not proceed with the project, due to America entering the war.
In 1979 Colin Mathews completed and orchestrated the sketches as Movement for clarinet and orchestra. It was first heard during March 1990 and was subsequently recorded on the above mentioned Hyperion CD. In 2007, Mathews decided to extend the work by adding two additional movements.  The second, ‘Mazurka elegiaca’ is an arrangement of the eponymous work for two pianos, op.23 no.2.  This had been composed in New York in 1941, in memoriam of the pianist Jan Paderewski. The finale is ‘an adaptation for an orchestral piece thought to be the Sonata for orchestra Britten was working on this during 1942/3.  The ‘completed’ concerto was first heard in Gateshead during May 2008.
This is a beautifully balanced work that unearths much attractive music.  It is good to have what is effectively a ‘new’ concerto by Britten. Another version of this work appears on NMC NMCD140 with the same soloist as here, but accompanied by the Northern Sinfonia under Thomas Zehetmair. I have not heard this recording.

Partially due to their discovery by Classic FM, Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles, op.23a (1938-43) have more than a dozen recordings in the catalogues. Some of these are for the clarinet/piano arrangement, which was the work’s original incarnation.  In 1989 the composer Lawrence Ashmore (1928-2013) transcribed the piano part for string orchestra. This was at the behest of the American clarinettist Richard Stoltzman, who wanted an orchestral piece to accompany his recording of the Finzi Clarinet Concerto, op.31 (1948-9).
In spite of their short duration, these five pieces encompass a wide range of emotion and stylistic variety. There is a nod to Poulenc in the opening Prelude. The ‘Romance’ is restrained, and, typically for the composer, quite introverted. Diane McVeigh has noted that the third movement ‘Carol’ was originally a song setting of Gurney’s ‘Winter now has bared her trees.’ The ‘Forlana’ which is a gently lilting dance was formerly of Italian extraction, once ‘popular with Venetian gondoliers’, but was most famously used by J.S. Bach in his orchestral suite in C major and by Ravel in his Le Tombeau de Couperin. The influence of William Walton’s overture Portsmouth Point has been noted in the vivacious final ‘Fughetta’ which was the only movement written especially for this set of bagatelles.

Arnold Cooke’s Concerto No. 1 for clarinet and string orchestra was composed in 1955. Eric Wetherell, in his study of the composer, notes that Cooke once confessed in a radio broadcast that his favourite instruments were the clarinet and the oboe.  Certainly, over the years he wrote widely for these. There are sonatas for clarinet (1959), oboe (1957), two concertos for clarinet (1955 and 1981/2) a concerto for oboe and strings (1954) as well as a number of chamber works featuring these instruments.
The Concerto No. 1 was first performed at the 1957 Cheltenham Festival by Gervase de Peyer and the Goldsborough String Orchestra under Charles Mackerras. It made a ‘favourable impression by its lyrical aptness and fine craftsmanship.’ It is written in traditional three movement form.  
Cooke is often dismissed as being ‘sub-Hindemith’ in his musical style. He is criticised for lacking any ‘Englishness’. This present concerto lays that myth to rest. Especially so with the gorgeous middle movement which evokes the English countryside to the extent that the composer indulges in an exact transcription of a blackbird’s song.  The opening movement is complex, founded on four separate themes that evolve in sequence and in dialogue. In spite of this complexity, the general mood is one of lyricism and a feel of the open air. The finale is typically vivacious, however there is a reflective middle section.  This is happy music, without a care in the world. It may not be Delius or Vaughan Williams, but Arnold Cooke suggests the spirit of place as well as either of them. It is not dry as dust or pedantic, as his critics would have listeners believe.  Arnold Cooke’s Clarinet Concerto No.1 is also available on Hyperion Helios CDH55069 played by Thea King with the North West Chamber Orchestra of Seattle under Alun Francis.

The latest work on this CD is William Mathias Clarinet Concerto for string orchestra and percussion op.68 which was written in 1975. It was dedicated to Gervase de Peyer to whom he Mathias been promising a concerto since the mid-sixties. The concerto was premiered in St Asaph Cathedral on 22 September of that year with the dedicatee and the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Atherton.
This is a work that combines Mathias’ neo-classical style with jazz and encompasses a satisfying structural balance. The percussion (both pitched and unpitched) is used to ‘add atmospheric colouring and to highlight the use of jazz rhythms’ especially in the finale.  There is much here to enjoy: Bartokian rhythms, blues infused melodies as well as some delicious harmonies. The middle movement is ‘nocturnal’ in mood: it is, as the composer wrote ‘highly introspective, sometimes tender, [and] sometimes passionate.’

As usual with Chandos, the production of this CD is excellent. The liner notes by Anthony Burton reflect the history, analysis and impact of all four works. They are given in English, German and French, so one hopes that these superb British clarinet concertos will penetrate far into Europe. The booklet has a number of photographs of the performers and the composers (except for some reason Finzi).

Michael Collins’s playing in these four concertos is revelatory: he equals his acknowledged triumph in Volume 1 of this series. This is reflected in the ideal sound quality of the recording.  I look forward to volumes 3, 4, 5 and more of this exciting and essential series of British Clarinet Music. 

Track Listings:
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Movements for a clarinet concerto (1941-2)
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) Five Bagatelles, op.23a (1938-43)
Arnold COOKE (1906-2005) Concerto No.1 for clarinet and string orchestra (1955)
William MATHIAS (1934-1992) Clarinet Concerto, op.68 (1975)
Michael Collins (Soloist/Conductor); BBC Symphony Orchestra
CHANDOS CHAN 10891 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Herbert Howells: Three Figures: Triptych for Brass Band (1960)

Herbert Howells (1892-1983) is typically regarded as a composer of liturgical and organ music. In recent years, many of his early orchestral and chamber works have been rediscovered and proved to be a rich source of romantic music that reflects the composer’s love of the English countryside as well as being technically satisfying.

Less well-known, except with brass band aficionados, are his two contributions to this genre. Pageantry: Suite for brass band was written for the 1934 Contest at Belle Vue in Manchester. This work has retained its popularity ever since.  The Three Figures: Triptych for brass band (1960) was composed as the contest piece for the National Championships of that year. The winning band was Munn and Feltons which was founded in Northamptonshire in 1933. It now plays under the name The Virtuosi G.U.S. Band.

The ‘Three Figures’ in the title refer to three well-known personalities in the world of brass bands. The opening movement is ‘Cope’s Challenge.’ Samuel Cope (1856-1947) was the founder of weekly newspaper The British Bandsman which was established in 1887. It is still going strong in both online and print formats.  This movement is characterised by three contrasting themes. The first is a powerful thrusting tune which is followed by audacious fanfares. The third melody is a little sad and melancholic.
The second movement is entitled ‘Iles’s Interlude’. This refers to John Henry Iles (1871-1951), the founder and chief administrator of the National Brass Band Championships.  Once again, Howells has struck a reflective mood for much of this movement. This apparently reflects the introspective character of Iles. The music is largely pianissimo throughout, presenting a considerable challenge to the band.
Finally, ‘Rimmer’s Race’ is dedicated to the composer, instrumentalist and conductor, William Rimmer (1862-1936).  This is an extrovert piece that is almost toccata-like in its energy and rhythmic diversity. There is a period of reflection, before the movement and work comes to an enervating close.

Three Figures is more ‘abstract’ than the titles of the movements may suggest. In fact, Howells was employing a conceit from the days when Elizabethan composers named pieces after friends and famous musical characters.  He had already done this in his instrumental works Lambert’s Clavichord (1927) and Howells’ Clavichord (1941).  It is not really necessary to try to read any profound programme into these movements: just enjoy the music.

Three Figures: Triptych for brass band has been used as a Contest Test Piece seven times, the most recent being 30 October 2005 at the Pontin’s Championship. 

The Three Figures can be heard on YouTube. The Besses O'the Barn Brass Band is conducted here by Roy Newsome. 

Saturday, 4 June 2016

This is York British Transport Film (1953)

Leighton Lucas is now largely forgotten as a composer. When recalled, it is usually for his film music.  Credits to his name include scores such as Ice Cold in Alex, The Yangtse Incident, The Dambusters (except for the famous Eric Coates March) and Target for Tonight. A generation of a certain age, will recall, unwittingly perhaps, his title music for the radio series Just William.

Leighton Lucas was born in 1903 and came to prominence as a member of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe (1918-21) and at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre a couple of years later. His main occupation was conducting. After war service in the Royal Air Force he continued his career of composing and conducting alongside educational work with the BBC.  He was on the staff of the Royal Academy of Music.
Alongside his film scores, Lucas wrote a series of ballets, concertante works for a variety of instruments and various orchestral pieces. His best known concert work is probably the Chorale and Variations for brass band. Leighton Lucas died in London in 1982.

This is York was made in 1953. The inspiration for this nostalgic film came from an article in the Railway Magazine (1949) entitled ‘Twenty Four Hours at York’ written by the iconic railway historian O.S. Nock.  The basic ‘plot’ is a day in the life of the railway station. Greater interest is maintained by shots of the city streets, the countryside, as well as more detailed railway matters. The story is told through the eyes of the now old-fashioned Station Master who arrives at his office complete with bowler hat.

As presented on the Chandos album of film music by Arthur Benjamin and Leighton Lucas, the suite from This is York has four discrete sections.
1. Opening Titles,
2. Setting the Path – Diagram Lights
3. Thornton-le-Dale
4. Smoking Engine – Pan across York – Committee Room –Portraits – Railway Museum.

The time span of the film is from dawn to dusk, reflecting the original article. The opening credits feature gently-stated music which compliment the early morning: a view of the Minster, deserted streets of York and workers on their commute, during which the narrator tells a little about the city’s history and industry.  Much of narrative is routine, everyday operation of the railway.  Later on in the day the train spotters arrive and pay a penny for their platform tickets.
The most notable movement is the second section, in which the composer has created a locomotive sound that owes much to Honegger’s Pacific 231. There are good pictures of the then state-of-the-art signal box which had been commissioned in 1951. It has since been superseded by an electronic signalling system. There are lots of views of steam-hauled train entering and leaving the station, the locomotive shed and the carriage sidings.
The third ‘movement’ of the suite has a pastoral feel as the viewer meets 'Mr Barnes' at Thornton-Le-Dale who used the trains to send his prize rabbits to shows. Alas, the music also accompanies the railway motor van, which had replaced many local branch line goods services.
The last section of the suite moves into evening shadows. Romantic music complements traders and typists, merchants and clerks, heading homeward. The final moments portray the station master putting on his bowler and leaving his office. The music rolls through the credits with scenes of York by night.

The film was directed by J.B. Holmes, the script was written by Paul le Saux and was narrated by Frank Crossland and Denis McCarthy.
Atypically of film music from that era, the manuscript score was preserved by a member of the film company. It would appear to be the only one by Leighton Lucas to have survived.  The score has been edited by Malcolm Riley. 
The music of This is York can be heard on The Film Music of Arthur Benjamin and Leighton Lucas, Chandos, CHAN 10713

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Charles O'Brien (1882-1968): Orchestral Works Volume 2

MusicWeb International reviewer Jonathan Woolf stole my thunder on this composer. Let me explain. Until receiving this present disc, Charles O’Brien was little more than a name to me. I had never knowingly heard any music composed by him.  As part of my review of an unknown/unfamiliar composer I always listen to the CD once-through without reading the liner notes or doing a web search.  It is part of my ‘Innocent Ear’ approach. Maybe not a good idea, but it is my way. After the final track had died away, I thought:’ O’Brien’s music sounds as if someone had discovered a pile of lost scores by the Greenock-born composer Hamish MacCunn’ famous for Overture: The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. I then read Woolf’s review – ‘There’s the famous School of Stanford – but what of the School of the short-lived Hamish MacCunn?’ That’s the very thought that occurred to me as I listened to the orchestral music of Charles O’Brien…’  So I cannot claim this comparison as my own, nevertheless, it is an admirable rule of thumb for judging the quality of music in this CD. It is worth recalling that O’Brien was a Scottish composer, in spite of being born in Eastbourne. And he did take lessons from the ‘senior man’ in Edinburgh. At bottom line this is music from a composer who as influenced by the romantic school of music but who was tinged with a number of indigenous felicities.   

Volume 1 of this collection included the massive Walter Scott-inspired overture Ellangowan, op.12 (1909) derived from Guy Mannering and the Symphony in F minor, op.23 (1922). The present CD includes some shorter, but equally interesting, pieces of music. I should point out that I have now listened to Volume 1.

I began my review with the early Mazurka and Berceuse (1898). They were written when the sixteen year old composers was at George Watson’s School in Edinburgh. Mann points out that they were originally piano pieces that were orchestrated by person or persons unknown. The orchestral score is initialled C.C. so it is possible that it was fellow school mate Cecil Coles (1888-1918) who had obliged O’Brien. The Mazurka is a pleasant little piece that could have been composed by Eduard or Josef Strauss. The Berceuse’s scoring had to be reworked by Mann as ‘C.C.s’ original was ‘so problematic.’ The end result is a charming piece of light music.

I moved on to the Scottish Scenes, op.17. And yes, MacCunn had written a two piano pieces entitled Scottish Scenes: ‘In the Glen’ and ‘In the Ingleneuk’ in 1914. Charles O’Brien’s evocation of the Caledonian landscape was produced around the same time, between 1914 and 1915. Once again, they were originally conceived for piano, and were subsequently orchestrated by the composer as late as 1929 for a BBC broadcast.  I love Mann’s comment on the work’s integrity: “O’Brien’s image of Scotland didn’t come from the top of a shortbread tin. His is a country of ruggedly beautiful, sometimes inhospitable landscapes…”

The three scenes present musical pictures of Scotland. ‘Moorland’ is dark and brooding, yet with an unexpected warmth for such a dramatic landscape. The ‘Voice of the Glen’ is like a Celtic mother calling to her children from afar. He uses a characteristic pentatonic melody (black notes only) in the string section.  However, the mood does change: he utilises a ‘shrieking piccolo and swirling harp’ to create something evocative of strife between clans or the gross indignity of the Highland Clearances. The mood of the opening is restored and brings the movement to a close. ‘Harvest Home’ is a Scottish country dance. All the stops are pulled out for this vigorous and vivacious finale.
Charles O’Brien has succeeded in giving a musical portrait of Scotland that does not depend on clichés from the music hall or cinema screen. Admittedly, there are a number of Scotch snaps and melodies that nod to Scottish folksong. Yet, he has managed to absorb the landscape into his heart and soul.

The next piece I explored was the powerful concert overture The Minstrel’s Curse.  It was first performed at the Empire Palace Theatre in Edinburgh on 3 December 1905. It is a programmatic piece of music based on a poetic ballad by the German author Ludwig Uhland (1787-1862). The story relates how two wandering minstrels, one old and the other young, arrived at a grim castle surrounded by ‘blooming flowers and ornate fountains.’ The tenant of the castle is a king who is despised as a tyrant. The minstrels enter the grand hall and play for the king and his queen. The monarch’s jealousy is aroused when his wife presents the young minstrel with a rose for performing so beautifully. He strikes the young man dead. The elder singer curses the tyrant and his castle, resulting in eternal desolation. There is no memory of the sovereign, his demesne or his deeds. ‘That is the minstrel’s curse.’
O’Brien has been almost literal in his following of the story, and the liner notes give a verse by verse analysis of the music’s progress. The musical language used to portray this story is that of Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Liszt.
I loved this ‘concert overture.’ I can understand Paul Mann’s contention that it may overstay its welcome, nevertheless the music is always interesting, exciting, dramatic and disturbing.  The listener can always dump the programme from their mind if it helps them to enjoy this symphonic-sized movement.  Just imagine the idea of the work depicting the power of beauty and wisdom triumphing over evil.

The last work I listened to was the first in the track listing – To Spring: Concert Overture, op.4. The work was premiered at the Edinburgh Music Hall on 24 March 1906, and was later taken up by Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth.  The key of the work, B flat major, is the same as Robert Schumann’s magical evocation of the season in his Spring Symphony. Certainly, it is easier to hear echoes of the River Rhine in this overture than intimations of the Firth of Forth.  Although let us not forget that Schumann claimed to have been inspired by ‘springs of love’ rather than snowdrops and daffodils. Whatever the inspiration for O’Brien’s work, it is a delightful, if a little old-fashioned, overture. It deserves its place in the repertoire.

Influences by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Tchaikovsky in this music there may well be. I have noted above the ghost of Hamish MacCunn visibly hovering over these scores. Although there are definite echoes of these composers, it is Charles O’Brien’s individual voice that comes through in these works.

The booklet notes by Paul Mann are fascinating. It is an essay-length discussion of these works that requires to be read. It includes notes about the conductor and the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra. The Latvian orchestra plays with enthusiasm and seem to have a definite flair for evoking the mists and sceneries of Scotland. I cannot help feeling that it is a sad reflection on attitudes to British music that Charles O’Brien’s rediscovery has had to go the beautiful country of Latvia: why was it not possible for one of the Scottish orchestras to ‘take him up.’

This is an excellent CD dedicated to an undiscovered Scottish composer. I understand that there are a few more orchestral works that ought to be recorded.  I look forward to Volume 3. 

Track Listing:
Charles O’BRIEN (1882-1968)
‘To Spring’: Concert Overture, op.4 (1906)
The Minstrel’s Curse: Concert Overture, op.7 (1905)
Mazurka (1898)
Berceuse (1898)
Scottish Scenes, op.17 (1915, orch. 1929) ‘Moorland’, ‘Voices in the Glen’ and ‘Harvest Home’
Liepāja Symphony Orchestra/Paul Mann
Toccata Classics TOCC 0263
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.