Wednesday, 28 January 2015

John Ireland: Works from 1915

A century ago, John Ireland was not particularly busy composing music.  Stewart R. Craggs has listed only four works noted in the revised edition of his John Ireland: Catalogue, Discography and Bibliography (2007):-
  • Evening Service in F major, for mixed chorus and organ
  • Rhapsody for solo piano
  • ‘An Island Hymn’, anthem for unaccompanied men’s voices (TTBB). This last work was later revised as ‘Island Praise’ in 1955.
  • Preludes for piano, No. 2 Obsession and No.4 Fire of Spring were completed in this year. Nos. 1 and 3 were completed in 1914 and 1913 respectively. The work was not performed until 7 June 1918. I will not consider these this post. 
During 1915 Ireland also began work on his Sonata No.2 in A minor for violin and piano which was duly completed in 1917.
Clearly the major work here is the Rhapsody for solo piano which is one of Ireland’s most important works. This work demands a lot of comment and analysis. I shall spare the reader by making three observations. Firstly, this work balances two important thematic statements - the first is ‘rugged and assertive’ and the second is ‘more pastoral and reflective in tone.’ The progress of the music between themes is assisted by complex and largely decorative passages which are in themselves a vital part of this work and are totally satisfying. Secondly, this contrasting structure and the general mood of the music surely reflect the dark days of the First World War. And thirdly, it has long been known that in spite of the title, this work has connections – both emotionally and musically with The Forgotten Rite, Sarnia and even Chelsea Reach. The Rhapsody has been declared as being a ‘symphonic poem for piano’.
There is no indication when this work was first performed, but may have been by William Murdoch at a British Music Society Concert. It was published by Stainer & Bell in 1917. 

‘An Island Hymn’ based on Isaiah 42: 10, 12 was composed in June 1915 as an anthem for male chorus. It was published by Stainer & Bell in a book of twelve short anthems which were designed ‘for use in church, on deck, in camp or trench as occasion may require/ composed for and dedicated to all brave Defenders of the Realm of George V, whether on sea, land or in the air, and especially the men’s Choir of HMS Achilles, somewhere in the North Sea’. HMS Achilles survived the Great War and was duly scrapped in 1921.

The Evening Service (Magnificat & Nunc Dimitis) in F seems to have been the final instalment of a long process. Jeremy Dibble, in his liner notes for the Naxos CD, writes that Ireland wrote his Te Deum in F in 1907. This owed much to Charles Villiers Stanford’s well known Te Deum in B flat op.10. In [c.]1912 Ireland added a Benedictus in the same key. The only work that the composer seemed to complete in 1914 was a Jubilate also in F major. They were published separately.
The Musical Times reviewer (March 1915) wrote that ‘…although Mr. Ireland's music makes no great demand upon organist or singers, it is full of interest, being melodious and well laid out for voices. The harmony generally is bold and diatonic, and the work as a result is strong, and free from the secular and 'part-song' flavour that so often disfigures settings of the Canticles.’
In 2012 the Evening Service and the Island Praise (1955 revision) appeared on a Naxos CD (8.573014). There are a number of versions of John Ireland’s Rhapsody available, including Alan Rowlands (Lyrita), Eric Parkin (Chandos & Lyrita), Mark Bebbington (Somm), and John Lenenan (Naxos).

In 1915 Ireland had purchased ‘The Studio’ at 14A Gunter Grove in Chelsea which was to be his home until he moved to Rock Mill in Sussex in 1943. Also the first published account of his music appeared in Monthly Musical Record (1 July1915). This appears on my blog

Sunday, 25 January 2015

William Mathias: Canzonetta for Organ (1967)

William Mathias (1934-1992) wrote a number of highly successful organ pieces over his career. Many have entered the standard repertoire and require considerable virtuosity from the performer. They range from recital pieces such as the Partita op.19 (1962) and the Variations on a Hymn Tune (Briant) op.20 (1962) to pot-boilers like the ever-popular Processional (1964).  There are only two works that are technically straightforward: the present Canzonetta and the Chorale which was published in Easy Modern Organ Music Volume 1 (1967). The Canzonetta shares an opus number with the composer’s Fantasy op.78 for organ which was written as a commission for ‘The 1978 Manchester International Organ Festival’, in association with the Welsh Arts Council. This latter work was dedicated to Geraint Jones. 
           
At the time of the composition of the Canzonetta William Mathias was professor of music and head of department at the University of Wales, Bangor. Furthermore, from 1961 he was a ‘house composer’ for Oxford University Press.  The Canzonetta was written to fulfil a commission for a short piece to be included in A Second Album of Preludes and Interludes: Six Pieces by Contemporary British Composers which was published by OUP in 1979. Other works in this album comprise: John Gardner: Interlude op.143; Bryan Kelly: Passacaglia; Edward Harper: Interlude: Ave Maria Stella; Alan Ridout: Dance and Kenneth Leighton: Ode. 
Canzonetta was sketched out in the late autumn of 1977 with the sketches and holograph of the score dated 27/12/77. It is not possible to assign a first public performance of the work, however it was no doubt played widely in parish churches after the publication of the Album.
William Mathias’ major ‘work in progress’ towards the end of the 1970s was his opera The Servants which had been commenced in 1975 and was duly given its first performance in Cardiff on 15 September 1980. Two other important compositions dating from this time are the orchestral Helios op.76 (1977) and the ‘Dance Variations’ op.72 (1976).

The Canzonetta is written in a fairly straightforward ternary form. There is no key signature. The music is indicated to be played ‘Lento et tranquillo’ for most of the piece with only a couple of ‘ritardandos’. The majority of the work is composed in triple time, however there are number of time-signature changes in the middle section between 3/4 and 2/4.  The score suggests that the piece is played on the ‘great’ or the ‘choir’ organ. It is largely pianissimo (p or mp) throughout.
The outer sections of the work use a ‘shepherd’s pipe’ modal melody which is largely stepwise and supported by parallel fifths acting as a ‘pastoral’ drone. It is answered by a consequent phrase of parallel fourths. This opening melody is played three times, each time raised by a tone.  The final statement utilises an extension of the antecedent phrase presented canonically.
The middle section is more chromatic. It initially presents a ‘wedge like’ harmonic structure expanding from a unison to a major fifth by way of a major 2nd and 3rd. This is followed by a reworking of the opening material in inversion and in canon.
The reprise begins an octave higher, supported by a pedal point. The melody here is given twice. The coda is made up of cluster chords derived from the eight note (octatonic) scale that Mathias has used to derive his melodic material. The final chord contains notes Ab (G#), B, F, G, D, E, Bb (A#) & C# presenting a beautiful soft dissonance.  The pedal part throughout is largely straightforward – there are a number of pedal points rising or falling by step. The overall impression of the Canzonetta is moody, reflective and rustically naïve (deliberately so).

It is hardly surprising that little critical comment has been written about Mathias’ Canzonetta, bearing in mind the work’s status as an interlude rather than a recital piece. I doubt that it will be included in many organ recitals.  The literature is equally sparse. Geraint Jones, who wrote the programme notes for the Nimbus recordings, has suggested that it is ‘…a hieratic introductory voluntary to the music of a liturgical service.’ Presumably he is using the word ‘hieratic’ in its ‘priestly’ as opposed to ‘sacred’ sense. Yet, I wonder if this is an appropriate description of a short piece that smacks more Strephon (in contemplative mood) and his pipe than the vicar’s benediction.  
The most important contribution to an analysis and understanding of this work is Samuel Louis Porter’s dissertation The Solo Organ Works of William Mathias which was submitted in 1991. I have relied heavily on this work in my analytical notes. Porter’s main contention is that ‘it [Canzonetta] shares the pathos and suspended animation of the Chorale’ is helpful to those who know the latter work. He makes clear that this is not typical of William Mathias’s organ music: it lacks any dance and rhythmic element. This may be a bit unfair, as much of Mathias music is based on blocks of sound such as used in Litanies as well as exploiting more meditative and reflective material.
I understand that the Canzonetta has been recorded by three organists: Jane Watts, Simon Lawford and Richard Lea (see Discography below for details). It has probably been ignored by recitalists because of the relatively straightforward nature of the piece and its dissimilarity to much of Mathias’s musical canon.
The Canzonetta is an attractive miniature, that is well-written and presenting a mood of repose and introspection. It is well within the gift of most church organists in that it does not require a virtuosic technique. 

Discography
  1. Mathias, William: Church Choral and Organ Works Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford, Stephen Darlington (director) and Simon Lawford (organ) Nimbus NI5243. (1990)
  2. Great European Organs: Rochester Cathedral, Jane Watts (organ) Priory PRCD 389 (with works by Popplewell, Hoddinott, Preston and Willcocks). (1993)
  3. Mathias, William: Complete Organ Works Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral Richard Lea (organ) Priory PRCD870 (2006)

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Peter Maxwell Davies: The Beltane Fire on Naxos

Listening to Peter Maxwell Davies’ music on this absorbing CD, I recall that the first of his compositions that I heard (circa 1972) was the ‘iconic’ Eight Songs of a Mad King which was premiered in April 1969. I struggled with that work when I first heard it and still do. However, I do recognise that it is a masterpiece: I am repelled and attracted to this music simultaneously. I guess that I had not heard much of Maxwell Davies’ music in the intervening years, until Naxos began a major retrospective of his orchestral and chamber works. Since then, I have come to appreciate the broad range of his musical style and achievement. Listeners need to recall that beside the works from Maxwell Davies’ ‘enfant terrible’ years there is a plethora of music in a diverse range of styles. From the minimalist Farewell to Stromness, which is a favourite on Classic FM, to the huge corpus of ten important Symphonies by way of the score to the film The Boyfriend and a foxtrot for orchestra, the composer has explored a wide range of musical and extra-musical imagery. The five works on this present CD are ‘a varied miscellany of orchestral works’ composed between 1989 and 1994. All are approachable, if sometimes challenging.

I suggest starting an exploration of this disc with Sunday Morning composed in 1994. It is the only example (so far) of a ‘signature tune’ from the composer. It was used to introduce Brian Kay’s Sunday Morning radio programme on Radio 3. This is a lovely, if occasionally ominous, piece which is presented in its full version in this recording. The mood is quite definitely a ‘Northern Landscape’ without being parochial. The liner notes suggest a ‘direct lineage’ to Sibelius’ lighter music. I consider that this piece could become just as popular as Farewell to Stromness.
Sir Charles and his Pavan was composed in 1992 to commemorate the life and achievement of Sir Charles Groves who died in June of that year. As a young composer, Maxwell Davies had received much encouragement from Groves whilst he was conductor of the BBC Northern Orchestra in Manchester (1944-1951).  The mood of the Pavan is typically reflective however there is a considerable climax towards the conclusion. It is a worthy, and often beautiful, compliment to a great conductor.
Threnody on a Plainsong for Michael Vyner is a tribute to the onetime artistic director of the London Sinfonietta who died in October 1989.  It is described as an ‘adagio’ for a Haydn-esque orchestra. The work’s main theme is based on the plainchant ‘Cor meum et caro mea exultaverunt in Deum vivum’. (My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God: Psalm 84:2).  This is a solemn but ultimately positive work.

The first of the two major works on this CD is The Beltane Fire (1995) which is billed as a choreographic poem. Originally conceived as a ballet score, it was never performed as such due to disagreement between composer and choreographer. Maxwell Davies has indicated that it is possible to listen to this work as an ‘abstract piece’ reflecting the dichotomy between the pagan forces of Orkney and Calvinistic ‘Reformed Christian beliefs’. Nevertheless the Maxwell Davies website expounds the plot of the ‘book’ created by the composer for the projected ballet. It is worth reading to give an idea of the original conception of the work, although I prefer to hear this music without a programme. The liner notes present a more musical analysis of the piece.
These imaginary ‘symphonic’ dances contrast the rhythms of Scottish folk-music with the more ponderous feeling of ‘ecclesiastical chant-based material.’ I am not sure that Calvinists were too enthusiastic about ‘plainsong’ but perhaps it is simply a musical device?  Certainly the pre-reformation Roman Church was more tolerant of (some) indigenous tradition. The music vacillates between a satisfying warmth and an emptiness and bleakness at the conclusion. It is surely a tragedy of history that Christianity (and other religions) has often tried to destroy or diminish rather than absorb folk-religion and beliefs. But that is a theological discussion for another day.
The Beltane Fire is an approachable work that will certainly inspire and move the listener. It is not a ‘light orchestral work’ as indicated on Maxwell Davies’ website by any stretch of the imagination.  The fact that the composer has chosen to use ‘realistic’ Orcadian fiddle music only serves to highlight the disparity between the two world-views rather than providing light relief. Reference to the ‘plot’ of the ballet will reveal a disturbing, if fascinating scenario. This is a multifaceted work that reflects a number of stylistic markers in Maxwell Davies’ career, including St. Thomas Wake and The Blind Fiddler.

The other main work is The Turn of the Tide which was commissioned by the British Association of Orchestras in 1992. It was first heard on 12 February 1993 at the Lightfoot Centre, Newcastle during the Association of British Orchestras Conference.  The concept of this tremendously pertinent work was to integrate children’s voices and instrumentalists with a professional orchestra adept at playing ‘contemporary’ music.  The piece is a study of environmental disaster presented in an evolutionary programme. The work opens with ‘First Life’ where plants, fish and mankind appear on earth. This is then elaborated into a section where life flourishes and develops in glory. The next two sections give a view of dissipation and decline in the environmental situation. Section 5 unfolds the disaster- The Worst that Could Happen—The Corruption and Dissolution of All Nature Completed. The composer has suggested this could be a tanker spillage or ‘fallout’ from mining for Uranium in the Orkneys and Shetlands. Fortunately, this is a fundamentally positive work so the final section expounds the The Warning is Heeded—Nature Reborn—The Decline is Reversed.
The progress of the music is predicated on a musical conversation between the amateurs and the professionals. Music is presented by the ‘orchestra’ and is then commented on, elaborated or attenuated by the lay ensembles. There is improvisation as well as fully-notated music.
The Turn of the Tide concludes with a ‘dance’ for all the performers as well as a chorus presenting an uplifting paean of celebration.
 All the works on this C were originally released on the defunct Collins Classic label. The sound quality of this CD is excellent. The liner notes by Richard Whitehouse are ideal and give all necessary detail. More information about all these pieces as well as the text of The Turn of the Tide can be found on the composer’s excellent website.

This is a fine disc that presents two of Peter Maxwell Davies’ most characteristic works. It would make and ideal introduction for anyone who has yet to engage with his music. Enthusiasts will be delighted to have this album in their collection. These two large-scale works display to perfection the composer’s gift of synthesising a wide variety of musical styles, moods and techniques. Both also display considerable philosophical, theological and political insight, whatever the listener’s belief system.

Track listing:
The Beltane Fire (1995)
The Turn of the Tide (1992)
Sunday Morning (1994)
Threnody on a Plainsong for Michael Vyner (1989)
Sir Charles his Pavan (1992)
The Manchester Cathedral Girls Choir, The Boys of Manchester Cathedral Choir, The Boys of Manchester Cathedral Voluntary Choir, The Choir of Manchester Grammar School (The Turn of the Tide)
BBC Philharmonic/Peter Maxwell Davies

NAXOS 8.572362 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

Monday, 19 January 2015

Robin Field: Lake District Composer

A few weeks ago, I received an interesting CD from the composer Robin Field. It contained music by him as well as works by fellow ‘Lakeland Composers.’ Field’s contribution was an evocative song-cycle ‘When I was one and twenty’ which, as the title may suggest was a setting of six poems by A.E. Housman. Fortunately, the composer also included the vocal score, so I was able to study these in some detail.
I had not heard of Robin Field. In fact, of the eleven members of the Lakeland Composers group it is only the late Arthur Butterworth and David Jennings that are known to me.
There is little biographical detail available about Robin Field. He was born in Redditch, Worcestershire in 1935 and duly studied music with Hugh Allen. Later he had lessons with James Murray Brown (of A Handbook of Musical Knowledge fame) in Durham and in London. He was fortunate to study with the Manchester composer Thomas Pitfield (1903-1999). Field was not a ‘professional’ composer in spite of having begun writing music as a teenager. His occupation was that of an industrial chemist.
In 1962 he moved to the Lake District and has latterly devoted his post-retirement years to composition. In 1971 Field won a composer’s competition which had been organised by North West Arts with the winning piece being a Fantasia Concertante for oboe and string orchestra.
Robin Field’s webpage is a part of the Lakeland Composers site.

It is always very difficult to try to evaluate a composer when there is so little music available to be heard. The catalogue gives some clue as to the direction of Field’s interests, but clearly until at least some of his music (other than the Housman songs) is recorded it will be a very tentative conclusion.
Robin Field has written large and small-scale works. There are concertos for oboe, for clarinet and for violin. A tantalisingly named Far in a Western Brookland is a ‘diptych for orchestra which further explores the Housman theme. Then, one wonders about the inspiration behind On Seeing the First Swallows in Spring. Could this possibly nod to Delius? I am not sure what Rohan rides to Gondor is all about:  I assume that this is a Tolkien/Middle-Earth influenced piece.
As a pianist (amateur, Grade 6 and a bit) I always look at what a composer has written for ‘my’ instrument. There are three considerable Sonatas, an interesting sounding ‘Tunes from Arran’ and Fliskwood (A Tay Side Suite). I hope to be able to see the scores for these one day.  The Cumbria Suite for oboe and piano sounds as if it may have considerable ‘local’ potential.  I notice that there is a Scottish interest in some of Field’s music – this includes the Three Island Sketches for violin and piano which has movements entitled ‘The Sound of Mull’, ‘Archie MacFadyen’s Ploy’ and ‘Tráigh Cadh’an Easa’ which is a lovely beach on Mull.
Field has composed music for virtually every genre, including films, electronic media, songs, choral, liturgical and chamber. There are eight string quartets which could be an important cycle. Let us hope we get a chance to hear them.
I notice in his catalogue that many of these works have been produced on the ‘Sibelius’ music writing software package which means that it is probably possible to play-back using ‘Scorch.’ Maybe this will be the way that Robin Field’s music will reach a much wider public.
I cannot at this stage know if Robin Field’s song cycle ‘When I was one and twenty’ is representative of his stylistic achievement across the wide range of his catalogue of music. However, listening to these songs, I am impressed by the subtlety of his word setting and the provision of an effective piano part that adds considerable atmosphere to each poem. His musical language (at least in these songs) appears to be largely tonal, but with occasional modulations into remote keys. The melodies of the songs are clearly attractive to sing and are typically memorable. The accompaniment is written in an effective and sometimes technically difficult pianistic style. Harmonically, there is little to challenge the listener, however there are a few moments where a bitter-sweet mood adds to the effectiveness of the setting. I have heard many Housman’s songs over the year, some of which are excellent, a number that are derivative of much that has already been written and not a few that seem to miss the point.
Robin Field has created a fine cycle that is effective, original (but well within the fine tradition of English song) and most important of all able to move the listener.
In preparing this note I did a number of web-searches. Unfortunately, very little appears under the composer’s name. I would have liked to have read a few concert reviews: I can only hope that more material will become available for making an evaluation of Robin Fields music in the coming months and years.



Friday, 16 January 2015

The Golden Years of Light Music -Grandstand: Production Music of the 1940s

I was interested to understand what the subtitle ‘Production Music of the 1940s’ of this new CD in the Guild Light Music series implied. The liner notes state that it was music ‘provided by publishers for use by professionals mainly in the entertainment business.’ Very often this music was specifically composed for the purpose and may have lasted only for a few seconds. I once discovered a CD of music for this purpose containing a number of very brief pieces by Edward White (of ‘Runaway Rocking Horse’ fame) and Trevor Duncan. These included ‘City to Suburb’ (20 sec.) ‘Bright Lights’ (34 sec.) and ‘Bound for the Country/Coast’ (38 sec.) I guess that none of these would be viable for general listening, but I imagine that they would be of great use to someone making a documentary film or newsreel. Some of these ‘production’ pieces have become popular over the years and fortunately are usually slightly longer. This present CD explores a wide variety of this ‘mood music’ from some of the very best of light music composers. 
The CD gets off to a great start with Robert Farnon’s ‘Grandstand’ which was sometimes also listed as ‘Holiday Party Time’. It is an enervating tune that certainly gives a good impression of a day at the races. Jack Beaver’s ‘Radio Theatre’ is a little bit more romantic in its mood, suggesting a quiet night-in listening to the wireless.  Edward White provides a bouncy little ‘Caprice for strings’ that is neat, tight and written with pure craftsmanship.  I am not sure what ‘Horse Feathers’ are, unless it refers to the Marx Brother’s film, but Philip Green’s tune of that name is a lugubrious little canter down a country lane. I wonder who ‘Tricksy’ was. Frederick George Charrosin is not specific about the source of his melody. Yet this is a happy-go-lucky person who is accompanied on his/her peregrinations by some lively music and clever orchestration. ‘Eunice’ by the well-regarded Charles William’s is an attractive little waltz that is full of summer sunshine.
I have long admired the music of Montague Ewing and have a fair number of his piano works on my shelves. However the ‘Phantom Piper’ is one of the few orchestral works from his pen that I have heard. It would appear to have begun life as a ‘novelty’ piano solo. I guess the ghostlike bells make this into a kind of spooky piece. But somehow I do not think this piper is too scary.  We all enjoy visiting Sunny Spain: Robert Busby has given a delightful impression called ‘A Refrain from Spain.’ Whether he had been there or not is immaterial: it is a kind of romantic picture of the Iberian Peninsula seen through the eyes of an Englishman. Jack Strachey presents a naturally bubbly account of ‘Pink Champagne’ which after a ‘big’ introduction launches into a vivacious waltz.  I had to check out who ‘Shock Headed Peter’ was. Seemingly, it derives from a German children’s book published in the 1840s. These morality tales included a character who was rather like Edward Scissorhands with spiky ‘electrified’ hair. Ronald Hammer gives a good musical picture of this character, with wayward music. Just occasionally a little waltz tries to establish itself. However, Peter never really gets the girl. It is one of the cleverest and most subtle pieces on this disc.
Jack Beaver has given us a fine impression of a ‘Mannequin’. In this case I think it is a beautiful lady displaying a new dress rather than the more prosaic three-dimensional display dummy in Dickins and Jones.
It is almost certain that the plans for the first British motorways were being developed in the late 1940s. However, Frank Tapp’s music probably refers to something a little less ambitious. The Germans had their autobahns: the first opened between Cologne and Bonn in 1932. More likely it was the Great West Road in London which was opened by King George V in 1925 as Britain’s very first dual-carriageway that inspired Tapp.  Frederic Curzon presents a good ‘Capricante’ which has an oriental feel to it. ‘News Reel’ by Len Stevens seems to suggest good news as opposed to something nasty. This ‘news’ is something positive, possibly describing a sporting event or a royal walkabout. The ‘trio’ is a really good tune that deserves to be heard more often. Philip Green has gone to Africa or the West Indies for his ‘Voodoo’ inspired piece. Alas, it sounds more like a day trip to Casablanca than something more mysterious.
‘Holiday Parade’ by Walter Collins is my favourite piece. It takes me back to the annual trip to Morecambe. All the delights of the seaside are presented to the mind’s eye. There is walk on the beach, a stroll along the pier, Punch and Judy and the high diving board at the lido.  And the journey was made behind a British Railways express locomotive.
The next piece calls to mind pantomimes at Christmas. ‘Tinkerbell’ from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan was basically a good, if occasionally naughty, fairy. But the audience is always happy to help Peter bring her back to life. King Palmer’s music squares the circle of her wayward character. Yet it is a piece of music that I seem to know from somewhere, but where?
I have not consciously heard anything by Geoffrey Henman. His ‘Charmeuse’ has a delightfully romantic French mood to it. This is a late night waltz with a very special lady. Equally romantic is Tony Lowry’s ‘Valse d’Amour’.
I am not sure if Michael North’s ‘Coliseum March’ refers to the ancient monument in Rome or to the Theatre in London. Certainly, it seems to suggest a night out at the shows rather than succumbing to the violence of the gladiators or the lions’ teeth.  I cannot fathom what mood music Eric Winstone is creating with his ‘Chinchilla.’ My dictionary defines the title as a ‘crepuscular rat’ so there must be some symbolism here that I do not understand. However, he does sound as if he is a romantic little fella at heart. Alfred Nieman’s ‘Parade of the Chessmen’ is a shrewd little piece. This is a military parade with a little bit of syncopation and not too much in the way of preparation for battle.
Clive Richardson is one of the better known writers of light music with famous numbers including ‘Beachcomber’ and the wartime hit, ‘London Fantasia’. His ‘The Theme for Romance’ could also be set in London, however this time it is more likely to be in the ballroom of the Dorchester Hotel or the Savoy Grill with the one you love, rather than an ‘ack-ack’ position on Hampstead Heath.  The Spanish mood is recreated by Mark Lubbock’s ‘Fiesta’. This is a rip-roaring piece that is full of sunshine and castanets.  The final work on this CD is another of my favourites – ‘Golden Arrow’ by Jack Beaver. I could elaborate on the image behind the title for many pages, however it fair to say that this is a railway piece ‘par excellence’. The Golden Arrow was the luxury boat-train initiated by the Southern Railway in 1929 between London Victoria and Dover, where passengers transferred to the cross-channel ferries bound for Calais and then onward to Paris.  It ceased in 1972. Beaver creates all the excitement that this journey would have generated. 
Once again Guild Light Music have presented listeners with a pot-pourri of musical material with something to appeal to everyone. The liner notes by David Ades are excellent and include a detailed analysis of the genre of ‘production music’. All the tracks have been beautifully restored, bearing in mind that they are between 65 and 75 years old. Something tells me that there will be more volumes of this particular genre of light music waiting in the wings. I look forward to reviewing them when they are released. An album to be highly recommended to all enthusiasts of light music.

Tracklisting:-
Robert Farnon (1917-2005) ‘Grandstand’ Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Robert Farnon (1948)  
Jack Beaver (1900-1963) ‘Radio Theatre’ New Century Orchestra conducted by Sidney Torch (1947)             
Edward White (1910-1994) ‘Caprice for Strings’ London Promenade Orchestra conducted by Walter Collins (1947)    
Philip Green (1911-1982) ‘Horse Feathers’ Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Sidney Torch (1947)   
Frederick George Charrosin (1910-1976) ‘Tricksy’ West End Celebrity Orchestra (1942)     Charles Williams (1893-1978) ‘Eunice’ Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Charles Williams (1946) 
Montague Ewing (1890-1957) ‘Phantom Piper’ Louis Voss Grand Orchestra (1944) 
Robert Busby (1901-1952) ‘A Refrain from Spain’ Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Robert Farnon (1947)    
Jack Strachey (1894-1972) ‘Pink Champagne’ West End Celebrity Orchestra (1947) 
Ronald Hanmer (1917-1994) ‘Shock-Headed Peter’ Harmonic Orchestra conducted by Hans May (1949) 
Jack Beaver ‘Mannequin’ New Century Orchestra conducted by Sidney Torch (1947) ]
Graeme Stuart real name Frank TAPP (1893-1953) ‘New Highway’ Regent Classic Orchestra (1947)   
Frederic Curzon (1899-1973) ‘Capricante’ New Concert Orchestra conducted by Jack Leon (1948) [3:28]           
Len Stevens (?-1989) ‘News Reel’ New Century Orchestra conducted by Sidney Torch (1947) 
Philip Green ‘Voodoo’ Louis Voss and His Orchestra (1947)         
Walter Collins (1892-1956) Holiday Parade’ London Promenade Orchestra conducted by Walter Collins (1946) 
Cedric King Palmer (1913-1999) ‘Tinkerbell’ London Promenade Orchestra conducted by Walter Collins (1946)
Geoffrey Henman (b.1896-?) ‘Charmeuse’ Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Charles Williams (1946) 
Michael North (1902-1960) ‘Coliseum March’ Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Charles Williams (1946)    
Tony Lowry (1888-1976) ‘Valse D’amour’ Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Philip Green (1946) 
Eric Winstone (1915-1974) ‘Chinchilla’ New Century Orchestra conducted by Sidney Torch (1947)     
Alfred Merlin, real name Alfred Nieman (1914-1997) ‘Parade of the Chessmen’ London Promenade Orchestra conducted by Walter Collins (1947)           
Clive Richardson (1909-1998) arr. Adrian FOLEY ‘Theme for Romance’ Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Robert Farnon (1947)    
Mark Lubbock (1898-1986) ‘Fiesta’ Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Robert Farnon (1947) 
Jack Beaver ‘Golden Arrow’ New Century Orchestra conducted by Sidney Torch (1948) 
All tracks ‘Mono’
Dates refer to recording, not composition.
Guild Light Music GLCD5220 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Some Important British Works that are Celebrating Half-Centenaries (Composed, First Performed or Published) Part 2

Part 2
Wilfred Josephs: Piano Concerto No 1 op.46; Canzonas on a Theme of Rameau, for strings; Sonata for violin and piano; So She Went into the Garden, for chorus and piano; Four Japanese Lyrics, for voice, clarinet and piano
Kenneth Leighton: Communion Service in D, for chorus and organ
Elisabeth Lutyens: The Valley of Hatsu-Se, for solo voice and instruments; Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, for unaccompanied chorus;
John McCabe: Chamber Concerto for viola, cello and orchestra; Concertante for harpsichord and chamber ensemble; Symphony No 1; Elegy; String Trio; Fantasy for brass quartet; Bagatelles for two clarinets;  Elegy for organ
Elizabeth Maconchy: Variazione Concertante for orchestra
William Mathias: Festival Te Deum, for mixed voices and organ
Nicolas Maw: String Quartet No.1
Thea Musgrave: Festival Overture, for orchestra; Excursions, for piano (four hands)
Alan Rawsthorne: Tankas of the Four Seasons, for tenor and chamber ensemble; Cello Concerto
Edmund Rubbra: Inscape, suite for chorus, strings and harp
John Tavener: Cain and Abel, cantata
Michael Tippett: Vision of St Augustine, for baritone, chorus and orchestra;
William Walton: The Twelve, for chorus and orchestra
Egon Wellesz: Symphony No 6
Malcolm Williamson: The Happy Prince, opera; Violin Concerto; Concerto Grosso for orchestra; Sinfonietta; Symphonic Variations, for orchestra; Four North Country Songs, for voice and orchestra
Hugh Wood: Scenes from Comus, for soli and orchestra (completed)

Much of this tranche of ‘half-centenary’ music seems to have died over succeeding years. However, there are a number of positives. I may have missed some recordings of the listed pieces: I would be interested to hear of them.

So little of Wilfred Joseph’s music has made it onto vinyl or CD with only a couple of discs devoted to his chamber music, the Double Bass Concerto and a few bits and pieces. However, none of the 1965 works (with the honourable exception of the Violin Sonata) seem to have been recorded for posterity. The Piano Concerto is surely a tantalising prospect?
I cannot find a recording of Kenneth Leighton’s Communion Service in D, for chorus and organ, however I assume that it is sometimes heard in ‘choirs and places where they sing.’
Listeners are fortunate to have a single recording of Elisabeth Lutyens’ The Valley of Hatsu-Se, for solo voice and instruments on the sterling NMC label.

John McCabe is well served. I looked at the discography on his webpage and it seems that most of his works from this year have survived – at least in the recording studio. The Symphony has been re-released (2104) on Naxos from the original Pye recording made in 1967. The Elegy for organ was available on an old Decca Eclipse LP. The Bagatelles for two clarinets were issued on the Albany label. The String Trio appears on a Campion Cameo CD coupled with music by the Manchester composer David Ellis.
I have not come to terms with Edmund Rubbra’s music: I accept that I have never given him a chance. I have listened to his symphonies over the years, but they have never really moved me. The 1965 Inscape, suite for chorus, strings and harp was release by Chandos in 2000. I understand that there is also a Decca vinyl version dating back to 1967 with John Carol Case, the Ambrosian Singers and the Jacques Orchestra conducted by Myer Fredman.
Alan Rawsthorne’s Tankas of the Four Seasons, for tenor and chamber ensemble has avoided being recorded: however his interesting Cello Concerto has received a single release on the Naxos label. It received mixed reviews.
John Tavener is well represented in the CD listings, however I am unable to locate a recording of his cantata Cain and Abel. I guess that most of currently available CD tracks will represent music written after his change of style to more ‘approachable’ and tonal music nodding towards Arvo Part.

I am not a fan of Michael Tippett’s choral work The Vision of St. Augustine, yet I recognise that it is one of his most important compositions. I am amazed that the only currently available recording is the old 1971 version with John Shirley Quirk and the LSO conducted by the composer. It was re-released most recently on a RCA Victor special CD (51304). As the reviewer in The Gramophone stated ‘…it is a masterpiece that reveals its secrets slowly…’ Surely it deserves a more modern recording?

The most ‘popular’ work dating from 1965 is William Walton’s choral piece The Twelve. There are currently 10 editions of this piece in the Arkiv catalogue, although I believe that the Naxos version appears on two different albums.
Hugh Wood’s Scenes from Comus, was issued along with his Symphony on the NMC label in 2002. Neither work appears to have caught the listening public’s imagination.  
Egon Wellesz is most fortunate in having his complete cycle of Symphonies released on the CPO label. Wellesz is reasonably well served by recording companies, though his music deserves greater exposure.
I do not believe that Nicolas Maw’s String Quartet No.1, Thea Musgrave’s Festival Overture or Elizabeth Maconchy’s Variazione Concertante for orchestra have been heard in recent years. They are certainly not in the current CD catalogues. I did find a reference to the Maw Quartet on an old Argo LP. Musgrave’s Excursions, for piano (four hands) has been released on Campion Cameo with works by Berkeley, Bowen, Walton and Lane. William Mathias’ Festival Te Deum has been appeared on Hyperion.

My biggest surprise is that I can only find two of Malcolm Williamson’s offerings for 1965 on CD – the Concerto Grosso and the Sinfonietta. Both were published on the first volume of Chandos slowly-appearing retrospective of his orchestral music. The Symphonic Variations are currently available on YouTube. However, there is no sign of the opera The Happy Prince, or the Violin Concerto. This latter work was released on LP by HMV coupled with Lennox Berkeley’s Violin Concerto. The Happy Prince was issued on vinyl by Argo in 1966. 

If I had to call for one or two works to be included in the record companies’ ‘bucket list’ it would have to include Wilfred Joseph’s Piano Concerto, Elizabeth Maconchy’s Variazione Concertante for orchestra and a new edition of Malcolm Williamson’s Concerto for Violin. 

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Some Important British Works that are Celebrating Half-Centenaries (Composed, First Performed or Published) Part 1

A selection of works that were composed, published or premiered in 1965. I acknowledge Eric Gilder’s The Dictionary of Composers and their Music as being an invaluable source for musical history. I present these listings in two parts.

Part 1:
Malcolm Arnold: Five Fantasies, for bassoon, clarinet, flute, horn and oboe
Don Banks: Horn Concerto
David Bedford: This One for You, for orchestra; Music for Albion Moonlight, for soprano and instruments ; 'O Now the Drenched Land Awakes', for baritone and piano duet
Richard Rodney Bennett: Symphony No 1; The Mines of Sulphur: opera fp. Trio(for(flute,(oboe(and(clarinet
Lennox Berkeley: Partita for chamber orchestra
Harrison Birtwistle: Tragoedia, for instrumental ensemble; ‘Ring a Dumb Carillon’, for soprano, clarinet and percussion; Carmen Paschale, motet for mixed chorus and organ
Havergal Brian: Symphonies Nos 22, 23 & 24
Benjamin Britten: Gemini Variations, for flute, violin and piano (four hands); Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, for voice and piano; The Poet's Echo, for voice and piano; Voices for Today, anthem for chorus
Alun Bush: Partita Concertante; Two Dances for cimbalon
Peter Maxwell Davies The Shepherd's Calendar, for singer and instruments; Shall I die for mannes sake, carol for soprano alto and piano; Seven in nomine.
Peter Dickinson: The Judas Tree, for actors, singers and ensemble
Benjamin Frankel : String Quartet No 5; The Battle of the Bulge (film music)
Peter Racine Fricker: Ricercare for organ
Robert Gerhard: Concerto for orchestra
Alexander Goehr: Pastorals, for orchestra
Iain Hamilton: String Quartet No 2; Aubade, for solo organ
Alun Hoddinott: Concerto Grosso No 1 fp; Aubade and Scherzo, for horn and string; Dives and Lazarus, cantata fp.
Robin Holloway: Music for Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes;
Daniel Jones: Capriccio for flute, harp and strings

Glancing at the above list discloses a number of surprises. Most importantly none of Benjamin Britten’s works from this year have really ‘caught on.’ Naturally, they have all been recorded at one stage or another, but they are definitely not overrepresented. There are three versions of the ‘Gemini Variations’ in the Arkiv catalogue, the most recent being from 2006. This compares to 11 recordings of the ‘Temporal Variations’ and 8 for the ‘Insect Pieces’. Similarly there are three current versions of the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake for voice and piano compared to 13 for the great song-cycle Winter Words. The Poets Echo is better represented.  I can only find one CD including the anthem Voices for Today.
A variety of discs have been issued of Malcolm Arnold’s interesting Fantasies for solo instruments. However, these are definitely not amongst his most popular music. They all deserve an occasional airing at recitals.
Iain Hamilton is ill-served on CD with none of his Symphonies currently available. Certainly there is no recording of his String Quartet or Aubade for organ.
Robin Holloway’s ‘Music for Eliot's Sweeney ‘ does not appear to have made it into the recording studio, neither has Daniel Jones’ Capriccio for flute, harp and strings, Peter Racine Fricker’s ‘Ricercare’ for organ or the two pieces by Alan Bush. Fortunately, Don Banks Horn Concerto is available in a single recording on Lyrita.

David Bedford is a composer whom I have come to rate highly in recent years. Once again Lyrita has come to the rescue with a fine recording of Music for Albion Moonlight, for soprano and instruments. However the other two works seem to have disappeared from view. I do understand that 'O Now the Drenched Land Awakes', for baritone and piano duet was released on Deutsche Grammophon in 2002.

Lennox Berkeley’s ‘Partita’ is offered on a single recording from Lyrita. Havergal Brian’s three symphonies from 1965 all appear on a single Naxos CD. However like so many of these pieces they have not made a major incursion into the concert hall.
Two out of three of Harrison Birtwistle’s 1965 works have been recorded with four versions of Tragoedia and a single edition of Carmen Paschale, motet for mixed chorus and organ currently in the catalogue. ‘Ring a Dumb Carillon’, for soprano, clarinet and percussion does not appear to have made it yet.
The current Master of the Queen’s Music has only one work from fifty years ago in the CD listings – ‘Seven in nomine’. There are other ‘deleted’ CDs of this music in existence. I was astonished that The Shepherd’s Calendar has been ignored.
Alun Hoddinott’s Dives and Lazarus is available on Lyrita, the Concerto Grosso No.1 has been issued on the Metronome label. In spite of the Horn Concerto being released on Lyrita, the Aubade and Scherzo for horn and orchestra does not appear in the listings.
I was delighted to find that Alexander Goehr’s Pastorals, for orchestra has been issued on Naxos. It is a work that I have yet to hear.
Another surprise is that none of the three 1965 works by Richard Rodney Bennett are on CD. There are live recordings of the Symphony No. 1 available from Internet ‘groups’ for collectors. 
Peter Dickinson’s huge, eclectic The Judas Tree was issued on the Heritage label last year.
Both the String Quartet No.5 and the film music for The Battle of the Bulge by Benjamin Frankel has been published by CPO Records. This company have done a sterling job in promoting a huge quantity of Frankel’s music, including most of the orchestral works and chamber music. Unfortunately (with a few exceptions) no other record label has given him due attention.
Perhaps my biggest surprise was that a major work such as Roberto Gerhard’s ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ has only a single recording (on Chandos). This is an acknowledged 20th century masterpiece that should be widely known and appreciated.

So it is a mixed bag of musical survival in the first part of these half-century listings. Out of the unrepresented works I would make a top priority for a new commercial recording of Richard Rodney Bennett’s Symphony No. 1. I have heard this work and consider that it is worthy of release on CD (along with much else of RRB’s music).  It is available on a YouTube recording with Colin Davis conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A vinyl record was released in 1968 coupled with Arnold Bax’s First Symphony. RCA Victor (Igor Buketoff). 

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Some Important British Works that are Celebrating Significant Anniversaries (Composed, First Performed or Published) include:-
150 years ago:-
1865
John Stainer
: Gideon, oratorio
This was John Stainer’s doctoral exercise. It was performed in part on 8 November 1865. The work was never published.

75 years ago
1940
William Alwyn
: Masquerade, overture [latterly, Overture to a Masque];
Richard Arnell: Violin Concerto
Arthur Benjamin: Sonatina for chamber orchestra
Lennox Berkeley: Sonatina for recorder (flute) and piano (1939-40); Five Housman Songs for tenor and piano, Four Concert Studies, set 1
Arthur Bliss: Seven American Poems, for low voice and piano
Benjamin Britten: Paul Bunyan, operetta (c1940-1, revised 1974); Sinfonia da requiem, for orchestra; Diversions on a Theme, for piano (left hand) and orchestra; Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, for tenor and piano
Frank Bridge: Rebus, for orchestra; Divertimento for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon
Alan Bush: Symphony No 1
Geoffrey Bush: Rhapsody for clarinet and string quartet
Gerald Finzi: Dies natalis, cantata (premiere)
Roberto Gerhard: Don Quixote, ballet (1940-1)
Constant Lambert: Dirge from Cymbeline, for voices and strings
Elisabeth Lutyens: Midas, ballet for string quartet and piano; Chamber Concertos Nos 1 and 2 (1940-1)
Andrzej Panufnik: Five Polish Peasant Songs (reconstructed 1945)
Matyas Seiber: Besardo Suite No 1
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Six Choral Songs - to be sung in time of war; Valiant for Truth, motet
William Walton: The Wise Virgins, ballet

From the above list it will be seen that a few works have been become part of the standard repertoire either in the concert hall or the recording studios.  This includes Finzi’s moving Dies Natalis, all the Britten pieces and William Walton’s The Wise Virgins ballet score.  All these are represented by more than one recording. Possibly only the Finzi is heard with any frequency in the concert hall.
A number of other names listed above have retained their important place in the hierarchy of British music, but the ‘1940’ works have either fallen out of favour or are considered marginal to the composer’s current standing. This includes RVWs ‘Six Choral Songs – to be sung in time of war’ and ‘Valiant for Truth’, Roberto Gerhard’s ballet Don Quixote, and Arthur Bliss’s ‘Seven American Poems, for low voice and piano’.  The two Frank Bridge works are not amongst those generally heard although they are currently available on CD.
The revival of British music in the last third of a century, at least as far as the recording studio is concerned, has seen a few of the lesser-known works listed above featuring in the catalogues.  This includes those composed by Matyas Seiber, William Alwyn, and (some of) Elisabeth Lutyens.
Lambert’s ‘Dirge’, Lutyens’ ballet score Midas, Arthur Benjamin’s Sonatina for chamber orchestra and Andrzej Panufnik’s ‘Five Polish Peasant Songs’ all seem to have been omitted from the recording schedules.
I was delighted to find that Geoffrey Bush’s Rhapsody for Clarinet and strings is available on YouTube, however, I do not believe that there is CD available.

There are still plenty of opportunities for courageous performers and recording companies to take on some of these works.  I guess the most pressing scores must be Lutyens’s Midas and a re-issue of Bush’s First Symphony, although Geoffrey Bush’s pastoral Rhapsody is an ideal work to be taken up by Classic FM and given an up-to-date recording. 

Sunday, 4 January 2015

British Music reaching its Centenary...

Some Important British Works that are Celebrating Significant Anniversaries (Composed, First Performed or Published) include:-

Granville Bantock: Hebridean Symphony (completed)
Arnold Bax: Violin Sonata No 1 (revised); Violin Sonata No2;  Legend, for violin and piano; The Maiden with the Daffodil, Winter Waters, The Princess’s Rose Garden, In a Vodka Shop, Apple-Blossom Time, Sleepy Head, Mountain Mood for piano;  Quintet in G minor, Red Owen (opera unfinished) Nympholet (orchestrated)
Arthur Bliss: Piano Quartet; String Quartet (c.1915)
Havergal Brian: English Suite No 2 (lost); Legend, for orchestra (lost)
Frank Bridge: Two Poems (after Richard Jefferies) orchestra; Lament, for strings; String Quartet No.2 in G minor
Eric Coates: From the Countryside, suite for orchestra 
Edward Elgar: Polonia, symphonic prelude; Une voix dans le désert, recitation with orchestra
Josef Holbrooke: The Enchanter, opera
Gustav Holst: Japanese Suite, for orchestra
Herbert Howells: Three Dances for violin and orchestra
John Ireland: Preludes for piano (1913-1915)
Cyril Scott: Piano Concerto No. 1 (premiere) 

These works from a century ago have survived remarkably well.  For British music enthusiasts most will be included in their CD and LP collections with one of more recordings. 
Bantock’s fine Hebridean Symphony has been issued on Naxos and Hyperion as well as on Intaglio and an old Gough and Davy LP dating from 1978. It may be an unwarranted personal opinion that could be challenged, but I think this is one of the best symphonies of that period. I accept that it could be described as being a little uneven in places, but in the round it is totally inspiring and satisfying.  
Arnold Bax has gained considerable status in the world of English music, especially through the labours of Lewis Foreman, Graham Parlett and Colin Scott-Sutherland. Without being complacent, I guess that virtually everything that is worthy from Bax’s pen (a few exceptions remain) have been recorded. It is a tribute to all concerned. Yet how often is Bax heard in the concert hall?
It is unfortunate that Havergal Brian’s two contributions from 1915 have been lost.  The Brian Society notes that the English Suite No.2 was subtitled ‘Night Portraits’ and contained six movements, including ‘Carnival’, ‘Witch’s Dance’ and ‘Recessional.’ The ‘Legend for orchestra’ was possibly dedicated to Nurse Edith Cavell and was completed by 14 November 1915.
In recent months the the war-works of Elgar have been issued on the SOMM record label.  I admit that they have never been amongst my favourites by that composer but they deserve attention and are valuable additions to our understanding of his ‘late’ works.
Like all of Josef Holbrooke’s operas, The Enchanter has sunk into total oblivion.  It was first heard in Chicago in the spring of 1915. The work’s English title was The Wizard. Maybe one day someone will revive it? There is a track lasting some three minutes on the Symposium record label, which would appear to be an extract from this opera.
Gustav Holst suffers for being remembered by music lovers for one work – The Planets. In many ways this monumental work is relatively untypical of his output. The Japanese Suite is is one of the ‘forgotten gems’ of his opus. It is a great piece that can justifiably take its place beside the better-known work.
The three works by Frank Bridge listed above have all secured a tentative place in the recorded repertoire. It surprises me that the haunting and moving Lament has not gained more popularity, especially on Classic FM. It was written to commemorate the loss of a child’s life, ‘Catharine aged nine’ on the Lusitania which was sunk in 1915.
Eric Coates is well-represented on CD in 2015 however, his From the Countryside Suite has only two recordings currently available (Dutton and Nimbus) and one that appears to have been deleted (ASV White Line). This idyllic work seems to ignore the wartime situation, though perhaps it represented the sort of England that ‘we were fighting for.’ Nevertheless this music is just that little bit more serious and thoughtful than much of Coates output. In some ways it is almost a short symphony, although studiously avoiding sonata form!  
Two versions have been made of Cyril Scott’s excellent but largely-forgotten Piano Concerto No.1: Lyrita and Chandos.
The works listed by Bliss, Howells and John Ireland are all currently available, with many versions of the latter’s Preludes for piano which includes the ubiquitous ‘Holy Boy’. 
Altogether the ‘score’ for works surviving their centenary in 2015 is remarkable. It is certainly infinitely more impressive than what history has dealt to music composed fifty years ago in 1965. More about that later… 

Thursday, 1 January 2015

A Happy New Year...

A Happy and Prosperous New Year
To All Readers of
The Land of Lost Content

Significant British Composer Anniversaries for 2015
Bi-Centenaries
J.W. Glover (1815-1899)
William Jackson (1815-1866)
Henry Lazarus (1815-1895)
H.H Pierson (1815- 1873)
Ferdinand Praeger (1815-1891)
150 Years
A.H. Brewer (1865-1928)
Alfred Hollins (1865-1942)
E.H. Lemare (1865-1934)
Stewart Macpherson (1865-1941)
Philip Miles (1865-1935)
Howard. Talbot (1865-1928)
R.R. Terry (1865-1938)
William Wolstenholme (1865-1931)
Centenaries
Gerald Cockshott (1915-1979)
Pamela Harrison (1915-1990)
Patrick Piggott (1915-1990)
Humphrey Searle (1915-1982)

The ‘big’ commemoration of 2015 must be Humphrey Searle’s centenary. However, of considerable note is the prolific early Victorian composer Henry Hugo Pierson. Readers will notice the extraordinary number of organ and choral composers who celebrate 150 years – Alfred Hollins, William Wolstenholme, R.R. Terry and E.H. Lemare. I wonder how these anniversaries will be celebrated during 2015. 

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Christmas Music: Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford

This is an excellent compilation of Christmas music that shows considerable imagination and variety.  From the transcendent sound of William Byrd to the more pungent music of William Mathias by way of an urbane contribution from Francis Poulenc, this CD offers an exciting and thoughtful contrast to many run of the mill seasonal offerings.
There are four pieces by William Byrd. It was once written about this composer that he was a ‘pastoral poet who loves misty distances, soft hues, gently undulating landscapes…a countryman, whose rural lyricism decks itself in the most exquisite graces that can be imagined by an artistic temperament at once simple and refined’ (Van den Borren). It is this ability to create a vocal tone-poem that impressed me with these pieces. Not only does the composer communicate the theological and liturgical message of the texts, he is able to present a musical evocation of the nativity landscape imagined by poets and painters. However, this landscape has been translated to England. Truly wonderful and uplifting.
At the other end of the scale is William Mathias’s ‘Ave Rex- A Carol Sequence’ op.45 which exploits a variety of harmonic devices old and new. For example, the medieval practice of ‘organum’ parallel movement of voices is contrasted with 20th century bitonality: the open ‘fourths and fifths’ are juxtaposed with sharp dissonances. The complex organ part is integral to this work.  ‘Ave Rex- A Carol Sequence’ was commissioned by the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir and was first heard at Llandaff Cathedral on 6 December 1969.  
Other works on this CD include the masterly antiphon ‘Mater Christi sanctissima’ by John Taverner, and an elegant and thoughtful setting by Palestrina of the Magnificat. John Sheppard’s superb anthem ‘Gaude, Gaude, Gaude, Maria’ is a complex six-part work probably written during the reign of Queen Mary.
Finally, I have never come across the Portuguese composer João Rodrigues Esteves (1700–1751). Seemingly, he was a fairly prolific composer of liturgical music. After study in Rome he spent the remainder of his life in Lisbon and latterly became a master of music in the Basilica de Santa Maria which was an adjunct of Lisbon Cathedral. His music is well-wrought and colourful. In some places he seems to be moving towards an operatic style rather than adhering to the then strict requirements of the Roman Catholic Church. It is hardly surprising that he is deemed to be the finest (if still largely unknown) Portuguese composer of his generation.
The presentation of this CD has one or two minor issues. It would have been good to have the texts of these pieces: as far as I can tell, they are all out of copyright. I accept that the listener can find these on the internet, but having them to hand is ideal.  This is a compilation, which is fine, but some idea of when each track was ‘laid down’ would have been useful. Finally, some of these pieces have an organ part, but the organist is not credited.
In the round, this is a most refreshing contribution to the very large number of Christmas CDs currently available. The singing is always impressive and the choice of programme inspiring.

Track Listings:-
Williams BYRD (1543-1623) A solis ortus cardine
William MATHIAS (1934-1992) Ave Rex- A Carol Sequence, op.45 (1969)
John TAVERNER (1490-1545) Mater Christi sanctissima
William BYRD Hodie Christus natus est; O magnum Misterium; Puer natus est nobis
John SHEPPARD (c.1515-c.1559) Gaude, gaude, gaude, Maria
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) Salve Regina (1941)
Giovanni Pierluigi  PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594) Magnificat (Sexti Toni a 6)
João Rodrigues  ESTEVES (c1700-1751) Beati Dei Genitrix; Verbum caro factum est
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
Nimbus Records NI7096 

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