Saturday, 20 September 2014

Philip Sawyers: Symphony No.2 on Nimbus Alliance

I recently reviewed Philip Sawyers’s two Violin Sonatas released on Nimbus Alliance (NI6240). My conclusion was that in these days, when so much ‘art’ music has jumped onto the ‘pop’ or ‘minimalist’ bandwagon it is good to come across a composer whose music has emotion, challenge and structure.  His musical style has embraced some ‘honest, down-to-earth serial music that delights in a subtle balance between dissonance and consonance, controlled organization and moments of sheer inspiration’.  It is a supposition that holds good for the present release of these three important symphonic and concerted works.
Philip Sawyers has an excellent website where all necessary biographical information can be accessed. However a couple of notes may be of help. Sawyers was born in London in 1951. He studied violin with Colin Sauer, Joan Spencer and Max Rostal. Interestingly, his composition teacher was Helen Glatz, who had been a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Further guidance came from Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra.  Between 1973 and 1997 he was a member of the Royal Opera House Orchestra at Covent Garden.  Sawyers concentrates now on composing, but fills his ‘spare time’ as a freelance violin teacher and player and as an adjudicator for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. It is not until the past 20 or so years that Sawyers has begun to make a considerable name for himself as a major composer. 
The earliest work on this CD is the Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings which was composed in 2006: it was commissioned by the Czech violinist Tomas Tulacek.  The liner notes point out that there are few works for this combination: Josef Haydn and Felix Mendelssohn spring to mind.  The composer has written that this work is ‘quite playful in its outer sections’- conversely, I find that this ‘playfulness’ is edgy and even a little sinister. It may have been inspired by an eighteenth century divertimento, but these are deep waters with a central section that is almost heart-breaking in its exploration of the twelve-note theme.  The ‘finale’ moves a little towards easing the emotional tension, but this is no throwaway rondo designed to raise applause. This is a hard-won struggle to overcome the introspection of the slow movement.
The Symphony No. 2 was commissioned by the Sydenham International Music Festival and was duly premiered by the London Mozart Players under Robert Trory (who died sadly in August 2013). The only stipulation was that the ‘orchestral forces’ had to be the same as for Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony which was also included in the premiere’s programme. The composer has noted that his Symphony No. 2 is not in the ‘traditional four movement mould’. Notwithstanding this assertion, this single movement work does fall into the four sections – quick opening, slow second section, an intermezzo and a fourth ‘movement’  that reuses earlier material and rounds it all off with a substantial peroration. Sawyers has stated that the musical material of this symphony is ‘motivically based’ and that the ‘symphonic journey’ is of continual development. (Ah! How I love that word ‘development’ and not just ‘repetition’ or ‘repetition with slight variation’ that seems to haunt so much ‘modern’ music.)
The sound-world of this outstanding symphony is something of a ‘fusion’ – even without the score it is easy to ‘imagine’ the working-out of 12-tone techniques. There are moments when the listener may be tempted to think that the composer is using a particular key, and then this illusion is blown away, and Webernian atonalism seems to take grip. Post-romanticism is a keynote in some passages, as is the aggression of RVWs Fourth Symphony. But this ‘fusion’ is seamless and totally coherent: this is what makes Sawyers’ Symphony ‘great.’ It is a carefully contrived synthesis that is musically satisfying and successful. Add to this the colourful use of the orchestra and the stage is set for an important addition to the huge range of British Symphonies written over the past 150 years. But the most essential thing is that this is a powerful, emotionally charged work that inspires and moves the listener.
The latest work on this CD was also commissioned by the Sydenham International Music Festival for their 2010 event. It was written for the present soloist, the Serbian-French cellist Maja Bogdanovic.  The composer has suggested that although the concerto has some ‘technically demanding passages’ the intention was not to write a virtuosic showpiece, but more to reflect on what the ‘cello means to me and convey the moods and nuances of expression that I find most appealing in the instrument.’
This is an approachable work that makes an impact on first hearing. The liner notes mention a critical Saywers’ fingerprint already noted above; the ability to move easily between ‘quite traditional chords and a highly chromatic, freely dissonant harmonic vocabulary.’ Added to this is the wayward ‘interplay’ of emotions – at one moment lyrical, then spirited, sometimes ironic and occasionally ferocious. Yet these are not musical clichés that are strung together: they evolve and develop one to another. 
The Cello Concerto is an extremely satisfying representative of a genre that is relatively uncommon in British Music. If I was pressed, I would say that a ‘finger in the air’ comparison would be ‘Finzi meets Searle’ and discuss Schumann. But this is facile… Philip Sawyer’s Cello Concerto is unique and will reveal itself in repeated hearings: if it is given the chance.
The liner notes are excellent (and the print is not too small!) and offers an exploration of these three pieces of music by the present Principle Guest Conductor of the Swan Orchestra, Kenneth Woods. These are interpolated with notes by the composer. Included are biographical details about the performers and the Orchestra of the Swan which is based in Stratford-upon-Avon.
I consider that the performance of all three works are exemplary and display the orchestra’s skill and enthusiasm. The soloists are clearly impressive in their interpretation of this music.
One final thought. I am not a Beethoven fan. However, I can understand why he is ‘great’. His Seventh Symphony (the one that was performed alongside Sawyers’ Second) has some 299 recordings currently listed on Arkiv: Sawyers’ has this present one.  It seems to me that most British symphonies (apart from Elgar, RVW, Arnold etc.) seem to stretch to a single recording (if lucky) and less than a handful of performances. It is something that makes me go ‘Hmmm’. Is Beethoven that much better? I will listen to Sawyers’ 2 again – Beethoven (for me) can wait a wee while longer. 
Track Listing:
Cello Concerto (2010)
Symphony No.2 (2008) 
Concertante for Violin, Piano and Strings (2006)
Maja Bogdanovic (cello) Louisa Stonehill (violin) Nicholas Burns (piano) Orchestra of the Swan/Kenneth Woods
Rec. Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon 14-15 May 2013
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Frederic Curzon’s Miniature Overture: Punchinello

I have always had a soft spot for the antics of Mr Punch and his ‘friends’ since first seeing a performance of this classic seaside entertainment at the great Lancashire seaside of Fleetwood in 1969. (In fact, walking along the seafront there the other day, I noticed that he is still going strong-on Fridays during the summer). It is fortunate that the ‘plot’ of this burlesque has not been watered-down by the politically correct elite. Punchinello was an earlier incarnation of Punch: it appears that he was a clown from Italian puppet show. I wrote two years ago about a piece with the same title by a certain John Cottam Holliday. So it is nice to discover this equally good example by the once popular light music composer Frederic Curzon.
Frederic Curzon is now best recalled for his attractive, if slightly melancholic, piece The Dance of the Ostracised Imp. Cognoscenti of the genre will also enjoy his Iberian suite In Malaga as well as the more solidly British themes Robin Hood Suite in three movements.
The Miniature Overture: Punchinello was composed around 1948 and was dedicated to the Welsh-born conductor Rae Jenkins (1903-1985). Jenkins had performed many of Curzon’s short pieces on the Radio during the 1940s and 50s and led to the composer becoming (for a space) a household name.
It is hardly surprising that there is little critical commentary on this present piece, but it deserves listening to carefully. Curzon’s description of some of Punchinello’s adventures are neatly presented. Like so much of his music the orchestration is second to none.
It opens with a few sharp chords before a scurrying string theme begins the adventure. These chords to interrupt the proceedings every so often. The woodwind introduces another little tune that leads on from the scampering tune. After a little Coatesian ‘development’ the work concludes with a short sharp coda. There is no real contrasting tune to suggest a more romantic side to Punchinello’s nature. It is really just about mischief.
To my knowledge, there are three versions of this delightful work currently available in the Record Catalogues. As long ago as 1991, Marco Polo brought out a retrospective of Curzon’s music on 8.223425. This presented most of the composer’s pot-boiler’s including the titles mentioned above.  There is the February 1962 recording made by George Weldon with the Pro Arte Orchestra on the EMI sampler of light music 0887962The final version is part of Guild’s The Golden Age of Light Music –Great British Composers Volume 2 GUILD GLCD 5203. No recording has reached YouTube yet. 

Monday, 15 September 2014

Ernest Tomlinson: An English Overture

This is one of my favourite pieces by Ernest Tomlinson in spite of the fact that I am not normally a fan of a potpourri of melodies being strung together. Certainly, Tomlinson has made quite a collection of tunes in this work. I guess, if I am honest, that there were a fair few that I did not get – my excuse is that I went to Scottish schools and majored on Scottish songs. However, there will be few people from any corner of the British Isles  who do not recognise ‘Come Lasses and Lads’, ‘Greensleeves’, ‘Oh! Dear What can the Matter be’, ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’, and ‘Lillibulero’.  Tomlinson has revealed that this work was originally conceived for brass band, ‘specifically’ for Foden’s Band conducted by Harry Mortimer. At that time is was known more appositely as an Overture on Famous English Airs. When the work was transcribed for orchestra it was renamed.  Other tunes that the attentive listener will hear are ‘Here's a Health unto His Majesty’, ‘Old King Cole’, ‘King Arthur Ruled the Land’, ‘Gossip Joan’, ‘Begone Dull Care’ and ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’. Like so much of Tomlinson’s music it is the skill that he brings to the orchestration of each melody. In fact, there are times that one is not really conscious that this is really just one song after another with a well-judged reprise of the opening tune in the last bars.
Andrew Lamb, writing in The Gramophone magazine considers that the English Overture is ‘clever, but rather brash’, which I guess is the intended effect.  I feel that it would be an ideal work for the Last Night of the Proms. However to keep a sense of equality, some similar work would have to be found for Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man. Certainly, Haydn Wood could provide the solution for that latter country with his fine ‘Manx Overture’. And then there is Edward German’s ‘Welsh Rhapsody’ and not to be forgotten is Ronald Binge’s ‘Scottish Rhapsody’. Finally, one or two of Stanford’s Irish Rhapsodies would be a good choice for Ulster and Eire. Everyone happy!

Ernest Tomlinson’s An English Overture can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223413 with the Bratislava Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer

Friday, 12 September 2014

John Addison: Film Music for ‘The Maggie’

One of my favourite films is the 1954 Ealing Comedy The Maggie. This film owes its inspiration to the Para Handy stories written by the Scottish author Neil Munro. These tales were originally published in the Glasgow Evening News under the pseudonym of Hugh Foulis and concerned themselves with the adventures of the crew of one of the Clyde’s once ubiquitous ‘puffers’ the Vital Spark.  These vessels were used to transport coal and other essential supplies from Glasgow to the Clyde Coast piers, Loch Fyne and the Western Isles. The Maggie was set in the nineteen fifties, whereas the original Para Handy (Peter Macfarlane) was sailing before and during the Great War.  Much of the action of the film is set on location at Glasgow, the beautiful Crinan canal and in Bowmore on Islay. The plot (no spoilers are given here) concerns an American business man, Calvin T. Marshall (Paul Douglas) who requires a cargo of bathroom fittings moved from Glasgow to Killtara where he has bought a house. Naturally, there is some confusion, and instead of Marshall’s secretary Pusey (played by Hubert Gregg) engaging a ‘reputable’ company’s vessel, he hires Captain Peter MacTaggart’s (Alex Mackenzie) boat the Maggie. Other characters of note include the mate, the engineer, Dougie the Wee Boy and the captain’s sister Sarah MacTaggart who is the owner of the puffer. Needless to say the progress of Marshall’s cargo is not without incident and humour. In the end the story ends happily.
The music for the film was written by the British composer John Addison (1920-1998). Addison is largely remembered today for his film scores which include Reach for the Sky, A Bridge too Far and Tom Jones. He wrote the theme music to the hugely successful Murder, She Wrote starring Angela Lansbury. He also composed ‘art’ music including a vivacious ballet score Carte Blanche, a fine Partita for strings, a Trumpet Concerto and a Sextet for woodwind written in 1949 and performed at the 1951 ISCM Festival.
There are two musical extracts available from the score to The Maggie. The first is included in the Chandos retrospective of John Addison’s film music. This is really an agreeable arrangement of one of the main themes from film ‘The Song of The Maggie’. It is well-played by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Rumon Gamba.  However, more useful and characteristic is the opening and closing credits of the actual film sound track which is uploaded to YouTube. In spite of the sound being a little muddy and indistinct this presents a good overall impression of the mood of the score. It features the concertina which gives a certain nostalgic feel to this music. I am not sure just quite how Scottish this music is, but it seems to fit the nautical mood of the film. Listeners will note that there is no ‘love interest’ in this film (apart from a little heart to heart between Calvin Marshall and Sheena after the ceilidh) so there is no big romantic theme. Addison has presented one or two sinister phrases in this opening music – perhaps reflecting the conflict with the Laird or maybe even the Marshall’s relationship with his wife (who is not seen on screen).
For transport enthusiasts there are great shots of contemporary motor cars, aeroplanes, cargo vessels as well as the dilapidated puffer. The Maggie was actually filmed using two vessels supplied by Hays and Co, a Glasgow based cargo shipment firm.

Clips from the film can be seen at the British Film Institute Screen Online website. (Registration Required).  The DVD is available from Amazon

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Lost Works No.3: Walford Davies' Holiday Tunes

Walford Davies’ Holiday Tunes which had impressed Henry Wood was a suite in some seven movements. It was written to “express the joyous feelings often associated with holidays, but not necessarily restricted to them.” In short this was a meditation on the ‘holiday spirit.’ It is worth quoting the Musical Times reviewer in full on this work:-
'The opening allegro energico starts with a violin solo announcing the principal theme which, since it is headed estatico, may be intended to express pleasurable anticipations. This at least accords with the spirit of the movement, which is developed at some length. The second number is delightfully humorous and dainty, and has for its chief subject quaint little tune of ingratiating character. A deeper note is struck in the third section and andante con moto of poetic expression, and having a finale of great beauty.’ Here the reviewer appears to have lost interest. The remaining four movements are quickly summed up as being of less importance, ‘consist[ing] of a Presto (in G) of gay character; a short peaceful andante tranquillo; a rocking tune which might be described as a lullaby, since it is based on the composer’s setting of George Wither’s poem ‘Sweet baby, sleep,’ and a bustling finale in march rhythm.’
Holiday Tunes is a work that appears to fall into the category of 'light’ music. Perhaps one of the CD companies that specialise in ‘light music discoveries’ could be tempted to revive this work. I guess it would sit well with Percy Whitlock’s Holiday Suite.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

'A Memorial Tribute to Ralph Vaughan Williams' on Everest

In the 1970s, I bought the entire collection of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. These had been released on the iconic Decca Eclipse label.  The only problem was that Decca had not issued the final Symphony, No. 9.  A short time later I bought the 1969 recording with the same conductor and orchestra: it was coupled with the rarely heard ‘Fantasia on Old 104th’ (HMV ASD2581).  I was lucky to have a friend who owned an original vinyl LP of the present CD. I was impressed with this at the time and have long regarded it as not only my preferred recording amongst the dozen or so CDs currently available of this symphony, but as my favourite of the entire symphonic cycle. It is good to have the opportunity to add it to my CD collection. I note that it was released in this format some 15 years ago coupled with Malcolm Arnold’s Third Symphony. It was reviewed by Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International in November 2000. It seems to have passed me by.
This re-release of the composer’s last great symphonic masterpiece has a poignant historical footnote. RVW was due to attend the recording sessions at Walthamstow Assembly Hall, but died sadly a few hours before the session began. The short spoken introduction by Sir Adrian reflects this event- it has been included on this CD.  The Symphony No.9 was composed largely in London during 1956-7 and also whilst the composer was visiting Majorca and at Ashmansworth whilst staying with Gerald Finzi. It was premiered by Sir Malcolm Sargent and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on 2 April 1958.
The Symphony No.9 did not impress the musical public quite as much as some of the other works in the cycle. Michael Kennedy wrote, there was no denying the coolness of the critics' reception of the music. Its enigmatic mood puzzled them, and more attention was therefore paid to the use of the flugel horn and to the flippant programme note (by the composer).’ In more recent years the symphony has been reappraised and is deemed by many to be a ‘masterpiece.’  RVW had originally intended to write a symphony based on Thomas Hardy’s great novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles. However this was largely abandoned. Incorporated into the structure of the symphony are references to the Sea Symphony and the tone-poem The Solent (thankfully now available on CD). Elements of the putative ‘programme’ do not interfere with the musical enjoyment of this ‘untitled’ work.
I find that the subtle balance of drama and lyrical eloquence of Boult’s 1958 recording is completely satisfying. It has been suggested that this is a ‘harrowing’ performance, reflecting the grief felt at the composer’s death by both players and the conductor. However, there is (for me) a warmth in much of this music that balances the passages that are clearly troubled.
The liner notes feature the original detailed analysis of the symphony derived largely from the composer’s own notes. There is also an interesting ‘technical spec’ of the recording technology which appeared with the LP. The original artwork is retained – which may not be flattering to the composer, but is appropriate to capturing the original mood of the disc.
Everest is in the process of releasing their entire back-catalogue of recordings. These are very reasonably priced, which reflects the fact that they are exact replicas of the original LP in length and in programme.  The original advertising blurb announced ‘Great music…great performances…magnificent new recording techniques…there’s the Everest best-selling combination.’ All this holds good today. I can hardly believe that this music was recorded 56 years ago. Everything about this CD is perfect.

Track Listing:
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No.9 in E minor (1958)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
Rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London August 1958
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Moura Lympany: Debussy’s 'Claire de Lune'

On 3 November 1952 Moura Lympany recorded the ubiquitous ‘Claire de Lune’ from Claude Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque (1890). It was released on HMV C4203 coupled with Isaac Albeniz’s well known Tango in D major arranged by Leopold Godowsky. An advert for the record appeared in the January 1953 edition of The Gramophone magazine alongside new releases such as Kirsten Flagstad and Gerald Moore performing Schubert’s ‘Frühlingsglaube’ and ‘Im Abendrot’ and Jascha Heifetz’s rendition of Saint-Saëns Havanaise Op.83.
‘Claire de Lune’ is the third piece in the Suite Bergamasque: it comes after the ‘Prelude’, the ‘Menuet’ and is followed by a ‘Passepied’. The original title of ‘Claire de Lune’ may have been ‘Promenade Sentimentale’ and the last movement was to have been a ‘Pavane’.  The four pieces were composed around 1890 but were not published until1905. It was Debussy’s intention to try to capture the ‘delicacy and elegance’ of the early days of the French clavecin (harpsichord).
Frank Dawes (BBC Music Guide: Debussy Piano Music, 1969, 1975) has noted that the title possibly refers to Verlaine’s poem of the same name ‘in which long-dead dancers in the moonlight [are] dancing forever to a ghostly music.’
Robert Schmitz (The Piano Works of Claude Debussy, 1950) has written that the most important requirement for a good performance of the piece is to ensure that ‘no bench-in-the-park’ be part of it. It must be contemplative and trustful.’ 
The contemporary 1955 edition of the Record Guide edited by Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe Taylor refers to Moura Lympany’s ‘quiet and lucid performance [being] in full accord with the title.
H.F. (Harry Farjeon?) writing in the same edition of The Gramophone noted above suggests that Moura Lympany has presented ‘Claire de Lune’ as a ‘calculated performance.’ He notes no ‘uncalled for mistiness or fussy romance.’ He imagines that the moon is ‘bien clair’ and that around it is almost as bright as daylight though more subtly charming.’ 
I have never considered the middle section of Debussy’s well-known piece to contain ‘mild excitement’ however H.F. believes that this is well-achieved.  But the important point is that Miss Lympany does not ‘hold herself back through any lack of generous pianistic feeling, only through deliberate reserve’. He concluded by admitting her ‘effects were a little posed.’ Interestingly the reviewer felt that the sound level of 'Claire de Lune' was considerably lower than the Tango.
Jeremy Nicolas (The Gramophone Awards 2013) in a review of the APR Recordings 2012 reissue of this record on CD, notes that ‘Claire de Lune’ can often lapse into sentimentality, and therefore by default implies that Lympany has avoided this ‘besetting’ sin.
This is a version of ‘Claire de Lune’ that I am delighted to have in my collection, in spite of any residual surface noise retained after transfer from the 78’s.
Moura Lympany’s 1952 performance of Claude Debussy’s ‘Claire de Lune’ can be heard on APR Recordings APR6011 and a brief extract can be heard on the Hyperion Website

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Lost Works No.2: G.W.L Marshall-Hall's Symphony in Eb

G.W.L. Marshall-Hall (1862-1915) is a name that is now little known in the United Kingdom. Yet his provenance is second to none. He was born in London and studied with Parry and Stanford. Soon assuming a place of importance in the musical life of London, he wrote a number of significant works which reached a degree of popularity. In 1892 he emigrated to Australia to become Professor of Music at the University of Melbourne. He was a ‘character’ – Bohemian would have been the contemporary epithet - and had a colourful career. He was sacked from the University for publishing a ‘sacrilegious’ book. However he was eventually reinstated in 1915, a few months before his death. His catalogue includes operas, chamber music songs and symphonic works.
The Symphony in Eb was written for ‘his friends and comrades under the Southern Cross.’ The composer wrote, ‘…it represents in purely lyrical form the manifold impressions of various lives upon an ardent, active temperament. Scenes, impressions, passions, activities, continuously succeed each other, as in life itself.’

It has been described as ‘exuberant and rich in orchestral colours with strong thematic ideas.’ (MOVE Record Label Advert for CD MD 3091) This is seemingly passionate and approachable music nodding to both Brahms and Wagner with a touch of the forelock to Schumann. The Brisbane Sunday Mail wrote that this symphony “breathes the spirit of romanticism…the slow movement particularly reflecting the Australian outback.”
Although this Symphony has been issued on CD it seems virtually impossible to acquire a copy. Let us hope that some enterprising record company will re-issue this work in the near future. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014

David Dubery: Observations- Seventeen Songs and a String Quartet

A brief thumbnail sketch of the composer may be of interest to listeners who have not come across his music before. David Dubery was born in Durban in South Africa. In 1961 he came to live in the United Kingdom in his mother’s hometown of Manchester. From a very young age Dubery composed music but studied formally at the Northern School of Music in Manchester between 1963 and 1971. He studied piano with Eileen Chadwick and Kendall Taylor. Dubery’s composition teacher was Dorothy Pilling. Much of his musical activity has been in broadcasting and for the stage where he has worked as a solo pianist, accompanist, vocal coach, musical director and teacher of piano and voice.  From a compositional point of view he is quite definitely a miniaturist (however his Quarteto Iberico is certainly no bagatelle) He is particularly interested in writing for the voice and has written many songs over his career. Dubery has contributed music for the theatre including an American-styled musical Love Line. His musical language is immediately approachable but can also be challenging to the listener.

The longest work on this new CD of music by Dubery is the fine above-mentioned Quarteto Iberico (Los fantasmas de los tiempos pasados): ‘Ghosts of Times Past’ which was composed in 2005 and reworked in 2013.  This string quartet is conceived in four movements with each having a ‘picture postcard’ title.  Dubery has noted that his interest in Spanish music began when he was still living in South Africa and witnessed Antonio and his Dancers at the Alhambra Theatre in Durban.  It was not until some years later that he visited the places that his youthful dreams had nurtured. The four movements are entitled (in English) ‘The Dancer in the Square’, ‘In the Maria Luisa Park, Seville’, ‘The Beggar Man in the Gothic Quarter’ (of Barcelona) and ‘Carnival’. The musical language of this work holds no terrors. In fact, it is ‘intentionally accessible, tonal and impressionistic.’  There are nods to a variety of composers that Dubery has come to admire – de Falla, Granados, Albeniz, Piazzolla and Rodrigo.
The liner notes provide a detailed ‘programme’ for each movement which can give a literary and topographical impulse to the listener’s experience of this Quartet. However, this is not necessary: it is sufficient to note that this work is inspired by the sunshine, occasional drama and edginess, and the charismatic characters of the Iberian Peninsula. I tend to regard each of these movements as a kind of aide-memoire that the composer has written for himself. If the listener wishes to share these impressions good and well – if not, just enjoy this vibrant, well constructed, sun-drenched score.  It is one of the most delightful ‘modern’ string quartets I have heard in a while.
The main proportion of this CD is devoted to a number of David Dubery’s songs. Four complete cycles are included as well as the early ‘Full Fathom Five’ from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Interestingly, this lugubrious version won an important composition prize in 1965. I guess that Holst and Britten are the models, but it is a delight in in its own right.

It is good to see the the song-cycle Observations recorded here. These settings of Walter de la Mare’s Rhymes and Verses for Children include some poems which do not appear to have been set before. The cycle was completed in 1979 but was later revised. These songs are composed in a vibrant style that reflects the mood of the text. Poems include ‘The Barber’s’, ‘The Old Sailor’ ‘Esmeralda’, ‘The Window’, ‘Done For’ and ‘The Promenade 1880’.   They cover a wide range of experience and emotion, including ‘noise and bustle’, shopping in the rain and the ‘question’ of hunting.
Dubery has noted that these songs often ‘reveal musical theatre influences’ from a time when he was writing for that medium. However, do not for one moment think that these little works of art are in any way ‘Lloyd-Webberian’ – they are much cleverer. Dubery has managed to balance innocence with subtlety in a very successful ‘song cycle’ that deserves to be in the repertoire. They are beautifully and imaginatively sung by Adrienne Murray.
The poet Douglas Gibson has clearly caught David Dubery’s imagination. Gibson was born in 1912 and wrote much of his best work whilst working in the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford during the Second World War. He had been allocated this position by the courts as he was a conscientious objector.  Many of Gibson’s poems reflect a deep interest in nature and a largely ‘pastoral’ interpretation of the landscape.
The opening song-cycle presents three of Gibson’s poems: ‘Swans in Flight’, ‘Lizard’ and ‘A Memory’. The first and last songs feature a beautifully written flute obligato. One of the characteristics of Dubery’s vocal music is his ability to indulge in some subtle word-painting. In the first song we hear undulating music which depicts the swans in flight. There is a clever musical reference to the Lizard’s darting tongue in the second.  The final song is (as the composer suggests) ‘Schubertian’: the accompaniment conjures up the ‘rhythm of the rails’ as the singer recalls a memory as seen from a carriage window. At the end of this song, the mood changes to an almost Constant Lambert-ian blues riff. Altogether a superb set of songs.
The second song-cycle featuring Douglas Gibson’s poems is the Housman-sounding Time will not Wait. These settings date from 1982.  Dubery suggests that this work is conceived as a ‘sonata for voice and piano in three movements.’  These songs major on the passing of time in a passive landscape where little appears to happen. There is a sense of stasis here that leads the listener into the poet’s dream-world.  Only occasionally does passion break forth – ‘the way the clouds are blown… [clouds] that now slide down the wooded hill’ or the dramatic opening and closing of the eponymous song.
Four other songs are included on this CD. They are grouped here as ‘Nightsongs’: they are all meditations on evenings during the year and also have a flute obligato. ‘One Night in December’ is an exquisite version of the beloved carol ‘Away in a Manger’. The second and third songs are further settings of Douglas Gibson. ‘The Evening in April’ is an enchanting number that perfectly balances flute, singer and soloist. It is dedicated to the author/composer Anthony Hopkins.  ‘June Evening’ is a lugubrious number that explores the beauty of creation in the countryside: ‘there is genius here/In the delicate hand/That traced these exquisite pastels across the sky…’ The flute takes on the persona of birds in flight. The final song in this ad-hoc group is Thomas Hardy’s ‘An August Midnight’. It is dedicated to the composer Peter Hope. The song imagines the great poet and novelist at his desk and the various insects that are attracted to his desk lamp. ‘A Longlegs, a moth, and a Dumbledore (bumble bee)… While ‘mid my page there idly stands/A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands.’ But the thought provoking element of this poem is the realisation that ‘God’s humblest, they!...They know Earth-Secrets that know not I.’ It is an idiomatic setting of what is one of my favourite Hardy poems.
The performance by the singers James Gilchirst and Adrienne Murray are superb. The composer is a remarkably sympathetic pianist and the flautist Michael Cox brings a magic to the two song cycles that include an obligato.  Finally the Cavaleri Quartet gives a well-balanced and convincing performance of David Dubery’s Iberian adventures.  The liner notes by the composer are detailed and include valuable biographies of all the participants.

This is a worthy disc of attractive music that demands to be explored slowly. There is nothing here that is particularly challenging or difficult to grasp on a first hearing. Each song is a perfect example of the composer’s art. The advertising for this CD suggests that the composer is one of the ‘leading exponents of the new lyrical post-modern music in Britain.’ David Dubery writes music that is in the trajectory of all that is best in English song – Ireland, Britten and Finzi. Yet there is an individual element that ensures that his music is never parody or pastiche. 

Three Songs for voice, flute and piano to poems by Douglas Gibson (2012) [6:53]
‘Full Fathom Five’ for alto voice and piano (Shakespeare) (1965) [4:26]
Time will not wait: Three songs for tenor voice and piano to poems by Douglas Gibson (1981/2) [9:44]
Night Songs: for voice, flute and piano (2010-13) [14:53]
Observations: Six songs for voice and piano to poems by Walter de la Mare (1979) [12:32]
Quarteto Iberico (Ghost of times past) for string quartet (2005, rev.2013) [22:46]
James Gilchrist (tenor) Adrienne Murray (mezzo-soprano) Michael Cox (flute) David Dubery (piano) Cavaleri Quartet: Martyn Jackson (violin) Ciaran McCabe (violin) Ann Beilby (viola) Rowena Calvert (cello)
Carole Nash Recital Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester 6 September 2013 (all vocal tracks) 12 September 2013 (Quartet)
Metier MSV 28548 [71:13]

Monday, 25 August 2014

Lost Works No.1: Felix White’s Overture Shylock

Felix White’s Overture, Shylock showed ‘great promise,’ according to ‘X’ writing in the socialist New Age Journal. He further pointed out that the composer was only 23 years old and this perhaps explained his tendency to ‘…wallow in psychological analysis.’ I must confess I cannot imagine this discipline rigorously applied to the composition of a Concert Overture! The orchestration was excellent and resulted in some delightful scoring. ‘X’ considered that the construction of the Overture was ‘puzzling’ and he lamented the fact that a ‘programme’ was not provided. He felt that the composer had produced an ‘involved piece of writing.’ The conclusion of the work was doubtless meant to portray the state of Shylock’s mind as Shakespeare leaves him to us at the conclusion of the Merchant of Venice. However it was of concern that the overture ‘petered out’ and this is surely not the emotional state of Shylock at this time. The conclusion of the review has a sting in its tail. Apparently ‘Mr White might as well have been describing the collapse of a favourite writing desk for all the emotion he squeezes out of the subject.’
Stewart R. Craggs writing in 1984 writes that White regarded his work as being ‘a little Straussy’ here and there. White himself noted that the work was ‘voted extremely difficult at its first performance.’ The Musical Times critic stated that the overture was ‘a cleverly-scored production that so appealed to the audience that he was recalled to the platform three times. Although the design is entirely modern in conception the development is rational and the scoring clear and exaggerations are carefully avoided.’
This is certainly a work that would bear re-discovery. Although whether it ought to come before some of Felix White’s other orchestral compositions such as the Impressions of England or The Deserted Village, after Goldsmith is a debatable matter.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Elgar & Sawyers Violin Sonatas on Nimbus Alliance

There are currently some 24 recordings of the Elgar Violin Sonata in E minor listed in the Arkiv catalogues. When these include such ‘big’ names as Nigel Kennedy, Hugh Bean, Tasmin Little and Lydia Mordkovitch, it has to be a special new release that would prompt me to purchase yet another version of this great, late chamber work. What the Steinberg Duo have done is to match an excellent new performance of this Sonata with two impressive examples of the genre by the contemporary composer Philip Sawyers. It is a good permutation.

I do not intend to give a biography of Philip Sawyers: there is a perfectly good thumbnail sketch on his webpage. Three points are worth noting. Firstly, Sawyers has been composing since he was 13. He later studied at the Guildhall School of Music in London, where he majored violin with Joan Spencer and Max Rostal, and composition from Buxton Orr, Patric Standford and Edmund Rubbra.
Secondly, it is only in the past twenty years or so that he has been fully recognised as an important composer, although I admit to not having consciously heard any music by him until this present release.
And finally, after a career with the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Sawyers now spends his ‘spare time’ from composing as a ‘freelance’ violinist, teacher and adjudicator having spent 12 years as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music from 2001-2013’.
His musical style has been summed up by Robert Matthew-Walker writing in Classical Source who reviewed the premiere of the Second symphony ‘deeply impressive work, serious in tone throughout, and genuinely symphonic…’ It is a sentiment I can apply to these present Violin Sonatas with the change from ‘symphonic’ to ‘instrumental’.

The first violin sonata began life as one for viola. It was written quickly for a Guildhall student during 1969.  Later it was ‘transcribed’ for another student performer, this time a violinist. What impressed me about this work was the extraordinary balance between what could be described as ‘bartokian’ drive coloured by harmonic piquancy and a more reflective, native sound that sits in a well-defined trajectory of the English Music Renaissance. I am not sure if the musical material of this sonata is derived from a ‘series’, but whatever the constructive scaffolding of this music, it is attractive, inspiring and moving.  The work is in three short movements with the beautiful central ‘andante’ forming its emotional depth. Stylistically, it must have seemed a very ‘conservative’ work when it was first performed at the end of the nineteen-sixties, yet the intervening years have given this music an almost timeless feel.

Musicologists usually regard with suspicion any composer who does not ‘develop’. They often try to categorise ‘periods’ in an artist’s musical biography, suggesting that ‘later is better’: that somehow the composer has been straining towards some particular goal all their creative live.  For example, it is a long way, musically, from Igor Stravinsky’s Russian works, through his neo-classical period to the serial compositions. There may be connections, stylistic markers and self-references, but there is also clear development –for better or worse. On this basis Philip Sawyers’ two violin sonatas he does not appear to have ‘developed’ in a stylistic sense. What has happened is that he has matured – both at a structural and technical level.  The second violin sonata is claimed as a twelve-tone work; however the composer wears this process lightly. He does not allow the ‘series’ to control his ‘inspiration’ –it is a tool, not a straightjacket.  This complex and virtuosic sonata is once again in three movements. The first, an allegro, is typically a ‘toccata’ balanced by some retrospective moments. Sawyers has noted that he made a ‘nod’ to the ‘baroque’ in this movement, but this is no ‘Back to Bach’ exercise.  The introverted ‘andante’ includes a hidden ‘brief 4-note quotation from Schoenberg’s 2nd Chamber Symphony’. Apparently judicious ‘homage’ to other composers is one of his ‘fingerprints.’  The final movement fairly romps along. This is more a ‘scherzo’ than a ‘sonata’ or ‘rondo’. There are a number of references to material from the previous movements.  The work ends with drama and energy. The entire Sonata is a tour de force for both performers. 

Alongside the String Quartet and the Piano Quintet, the Violin Sonata in E minor Op.82 represents a late-flowering of Elgar’s compositional powers. They are commonly known as the ‘Brinkwells’ after the cottage in Sussex where the composer spent time recuperating during the last year of the Great War. The Sonata was dedicated to M.J. (Marie Joshua) who was a family friend. Elgar wrote to her, "I fear it does not carry us any further but it is full of golden sounds and I like it, but you must not expect anything violently chromatic or cubist". Shortly after receiving this letter Marie died.

There were many who expected the new Sonata to be reflect the opulence of his symphonies however the result was much more concise and concentrated than many of his better known masterpieces. Elgar himself wrote that ‘the first movement is bold and vigorous, then a fantastic, curious movement with a very expressive middle section; a melody for violin…they say it is as good or better than anything I have done in an expressive way…the last movement is very broad and soothing, like the last movement of the second symphony.’ There is much passion and ‘violent outpouring of emotion’ in these pages with the quieter and more tranquil themes reflecting grief, sadness and ultimately resignation.  The final movement is much more positive in its effect and the work concludes with great hope for the future. One particularly beautiful moment is the self-quotation of the central theme of the slow movement in the last pages of the work – this was in memory of Marie Joshua.  Its first public performance was by W.H. Reed and Landon Ronald on 21 March 1919.

The Steinberg Duo consist of the husband-and-wife partnership of Louisa Stonehill, violin and Nicholas Burns, piano. They are based in Greenwich in South-East London and have created a ‘specialised chamber music studio’ where they hold monthly recitals. Local residents are encouraged to ‘experience chamber music in its natural habitat, away from the concert hall’.  For the past two years the Duo has been in ‘residence’ for the month of January in the Banff Centre in Canada, the venue for the present recording.
As part of their commitment to contemporary music, they have a strong relationship with Philip Sawyer. They plan to record some examples of his concerted music, including the Concertante for Piano, violin and strings.

There is little to grumble about any aspect of this CD. I guess that Nimbus could have found one or two smaller pieces by Elgar or Sawyers to boost the total beyond 62 minutes. The liner notes are excellent and give a helpful introduction to Sawyers’ violin sonatas. A little more general information about this composer would have been helpful. I concede that Sawyers has an attractive Webpage although this is a little shy on detail. For example, there is no listing of all his works to date. The link to his music publisher refers only the 1st Violin Sonata.  The liner notes by Nicolas Burns for the Elgar sonata are ideal.  Finally the CD cover does not inspire me: the pianist sitting on the floor looks as if his shoes could do with a brush!

I imagine that few listeners will chose this CD solely for the Steinberg Duo’s rendition of the Elgar Sonata, in spite of the fact that it is given an exemplary performance. However, the two Philip Sawyer Sonatas are such a startling discovery that it makes a surprisingly good package. The common thread between these three works is the sense of retrospection balanced by an often intense outpouring of emotion in Elgar’s case and energy in Sawyers’.
It is good to come across music from a composer who has not gone down the avenue of producing ‘pop’ or ‘minimalist’ inspired music that lacks emotion, structure and challenge. After hearing so much Ludovico Einaudi and Phamie Gow on the airwaves it is refreshing to hear some respectable, honest, down to earth serial music that delights in a subtle balance between dissonance and consonance, controlled structure and moments of sheer inspiration. I look forward to hearing more of Philip Sawyers music.

Taken as a whole, this CD is an excellent addition to the violin sonata repertoire. 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Philip SAWYERS (b. 1951) Violin Sonata No.1 (1969) [13:46] Violin Sonata No.2 (2011) [21:05]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Violin Sonata in E minor Op.82 (1918) [26:46]
Steinberg Duo Louisa Stonehill (violin) Nicholas Burns (piano)
Rec. The Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta, Canada January 2013
Nimbus Alliance NI6240 [61:37]

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Sir Edward Elgar Introduction and Allegro – Sir Adrian Boult 1937 Recording

Sir Adrian Boult
My introduction to the music of Sir Edward Elgar was some 43 years ago when I was still at school. In those days the music department record library consisted of a good selection of vinyl 33rpm and old 78rpm records. Amongst the latter, was the 1937 recording of an Introduction and Allegro for Strings played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. This two-record set also included the haunting Sospiri. I remember somehow getting those fragile records home on the school bus without breaking them. Fortunately, my father’s stereogram still had the 78rpm stylus fitted, so I was able to listen to them as soon as I got home. A recording was made on a cassette tape (which I still possess) simply by placing the microphone in front of the speakers and hoping my mother did not come into the sitting room to announce that tea was ready.

In the October 1934 edition of The Gramophone magazine H.E.J. Collins had declared a wish list of up-to-date recordings that he felt ‘are ardently desired by many gramophiles’. He listed five or six works with accompanying artists. This included Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony by Koussevitzky and the Boston Orchestra, Schubert’s 7th Symphony by Beecham and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings with Boult and the BBC Orchestra.  His letter also refers to the music of Bax and Moeran, but that is perhaps for another post.
Three years later HMV released the wished-for recording of Elgar on DB3198-9. It had been recorded on 24 March 1937 at the EMI Studio 1 at Abbey Road.
The most extensive review of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro was printed in the August 1937 edition of the Musical Times:-

Full marks to Adrian Boult and the strings of the B.B.C. orchestra for their performance of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro (DB 3198-99). This, to my mind, is better than Toscanini's performance with the same players on May 28, [Queen’s Hall, London] brilliant as that undoubtedly was, and well as it deserved its chorus of praise. What startled everybody on that occasion was, I think, the virtuosity of the string-playing and the daring leadership that asked everything of the players and got it. Under Toscanini we were given an unsurpassed realization of Elgar's string-writing. Yet it was an incomplete interpretation of Elgar's music, for it passed over those implications that are only to be perceived by one who has had a life-long intimacy with Elgar's special code. This intimacy does not proceed from an eclectic appreciation, such as Toscanini's, that fastens upon a few works such as the Enigma Variations and the Introduction and Allegro for what they possess of everyday merit. Its ground is an appreciation that is sympathetic to Elgar as a whole and catches the drift of all his music, both of the kind that breaks down European barriers and of the kind that stays within its own frontiers. It is thus that Adrian Boult appreciates Elgar. He sees in the Introduction and Allegro, not only what the writing says, but all the modifications and glosses put upon it by the Elgarian code. To play the music as the composer wrote it will not serve here, although with Elgar's almost garrulous directions the process gives the conductor plenty to attend to... …One of the few definite points of comparison between Toscanini and Boult is the tempo primo at the beginning of the fugue. Possibly Toscanini's headlong tempo was strictly primo by the clock. But Boult's more measured beat gives a clearer definition to the contrapuntal lines and their separate incidents. Moreover, it leads to a more distinct pui animato at the twenty-second bar of the fugue…Where memory is the only guide it is difficult to be specific; but it can be affirmed that in total effect Boult's interpretation is Elgarian in a way that Toscanini's just failed to be. The recorded performance sounds as if it had been thoroughly rehearsed, the players giving the conductor all the quick response that he asks of them… 
A review in the Yorkshire Evening Post (Friday 2 July 1937) suggests that the Introduction and Allegro holds ‘an assured place as one of the finest compositions ever written for string orchestra…and has the emotional uplift which Elgar at his greatest can inspire. He believes that this music ‘truly are strains that might create a soul under the ribs of death.’ (John Milton, Comus). Commenting on the ‘new’ records he rather oddly states that ‘In the wide field which he must cover, Sir Adrian does not always please.’  However, with the Elgar ‘in his aspiring mood the BBC music director can be deeply impressive, and so he is here.’ He concludes his review with praise for Sospiri and states that ‘these are two deeply satisfying records.’  The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Inteligencer (Thursday 15 July 1937) also picked up on this new record release: ‘We may rely on Sir Adrian Boult to give a better account of Elgar than any foreign conductor, however gifted. Here is Elgar at his ripest, moving happily in a large design and showing at every turn his deep love and understanding of strings. The playing is almost impeccable and the fluctuating tempi are felt to be part of this conception.’

The July 1937 copy of The Gramophone carried an extensive review, a comparison with a recent performance by Toscanini and an ‘analysis’ of this new record. The reviewer immediately suggested that Boult used too much ‘rubato in this recording (stolen time where the conductor gives some of the time value of longer notes to shorter ones without changing the rhythm).  However, he considers that the music speaks ‘with some of the deepest feeling and the finest architectural sense.’
He suggests that the performance is ‘good, but not more.’  He is concerned that the recording conditions may have had a negative impact on this music.’ The playing was ‘honest’ but not exciting’.  He thought that the climaxes were understated.  On the positive side, Boult ‘feels the Englishness of it all, and that (without entering into the impassioned debate about this business of Englishness and foreignness) does matter.’

There are currently some sixty recordings of Sir Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for string listed in the Arkiv Catalogue. However, from a personal point of view it is a classic example of when the first performance of a work which one hears is the ‘lifetime’ touchstone. Since those far off school-days I have heard many versions of the Introduction and Allegro including performances by Colin Davis, Mark Elder and Richard Hickox. But for me my favourite is still the old 1937 Boult recording. Fortunately it is available on download and on CD.

Brief Discography:
Sir Adrian Boult conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1937 recording of Sir Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings is currently available on:-
CD EI CDM 763 097-2 (1986)
CD VAI Audio VAIA 1067-2 (1

Saturday, 16 August 2014

English Pastoral Music: The View from Chosen Hill Conclusion

I have considered three works in this paper. They are representative of the genre of music which could (and often is, identified) as ‘pastoral’ music. 
Ivor Gurney’s A Gloucester Rhapsody is sunshine all the way. In spite of considerable suffering during the Great War, Gurney has written an optimistic work that furthers the ‘myth’ of an unspoilt pre-industrial revolution English countryside with Yeoman stock. It is a work that is purely descriptive of the landscape and the perceived, inherently good people that lived there.

Gerald Finzi’s Requiem da Camera uses many of the clichés of musical pastoralism, however this is a deeply introverted work that is more concerned with loss of life seen through the lens of the arch-typical English countryside. Finzi was too young to have fought in the First World War, but his Requiem is one of most thoughtful meditations on loss, and futility. Yet beauty of landscape and the pain of war cannot be disentangled in this work.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, in his Pastoral Symphony, has produced a masterpiece of reflection. He was present on the battlefield and saw for himself the tragedy of war.  Yet his music does not seek to exorcise the evil of war nor to arouse pity or create a rose-coloured picture of foreign fields forever England. He is neither a musical Rupert Brooke nor a Wilfred Owen.

This music presents the thoughts of a man longing for his homeland and at the same time recognising that evil is an ever present feature of the Human Condition. More than the other composers he evokes the balance of a pantheistic attachment to the landscape with a deeply considered understanding of the inherently selfish, fallen (and sometime evil) nature of humankind. It is a perfect definition of that which is best and lasting in the genre. In this sense the Pastoral Symphony epitomises a genre which can be redefined as Cows, Gates and the Sob of Memory. 
John France July 2014

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

English Pastoral Music: The View from Chosen Hill Part Four

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Vaughan Williams: Pastoral Symphony
On face value, there are few works to beat Ralph Vaughan Williams ‘Pastoral’ Symphony as an example of the eponymous genre. (I have eschewed discussing the ever popular, chart topping, Lark Ascending.) The Symphony was begun shortly after RVWs return from France and was completed in 1921. From the opening bars to the dying pages of the wordless soprano solo in the epilogue, it appears to epitomise the English landscape. Frank Howes wrote that this work does for the countryside as the same composer’s first symphony did for the Sea and the second did for London.  The Pastoral Symphony is largely contemplative from end to end. Michael Kennedy has insisted that Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony cannot bear comparison to Beethoven’s. He declares that ‘There are no imitation bird-calls, no thunderstorms and no ‘awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the countryside.’
The composer made use of modal melodies derived from his enthusiasm for folksong and Tudor ecclesiastical music, although there are no ‘actual’ folksongs quoted in this work.  There is a constant interweaving of melodies with triadic blocks of harmonies setting up false relations. Page after page of this score is restrained: there are virtually no climaxes.
Vaughan Williams had prepared the ground for music critics to derive a false understanding of this work within the parameters of ‘English Pastoral’. Pre-war compositions had included the Norfolk Rhapsodies and In the Fen Country. Earlier tone-poems musically evoking the English countryside and coast had delivered Harnam Down, Boldre Wood and The Solent. And finally there was that arch-typical example of the pastoral genre The Lark Ascending which had gestated during the war years.

In 1916 Vaughan Williams joined the Royal Army Medical Corp as an ambulance driver and saw action on the Western Front and latterly in Salonica.
The composer never explicitly defined what inspired his Pastoral Symphony. However the nearest he came to explaining it was in a letter to his future wife Ursula Wood: -
‘It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted… It’s really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Écoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like  landscape in the sunset’.
There is the oft-told tale of how the composer heard a bugler practicing ‘behind the lines’ or was it at the RAMC depot at Borden in Hampshire? Sometimes the bugler would hit the seventh instead of the octave. This has been preserved as the key theme in the second movement.
The third movement ‘scherzo’ which barely lives up to its name has ‘menace’. It is as if a malignant force has appeared on the sunlit uplands. Yet even here this is not the clash of armies or the despair of the wounded and the horror of the dying. It is something deeper: something elemental.
Modern criticism evacuates the notion that this is a work that evokes a summer Sunday’s ramble on the Cotswolds or a climb up Box Hill on a sunny day.  It is the French Landscape that is meditated on…
But what are we left with? Perhaps this modern criticism is misplaced?
Three things can be adduced:-
Firstly, the composer was clearly conscious of the English landscape: presumably he did not forget the moods, the sights and smells and sounds of Gloucestershire and the South Downs even when he was in action. He would often have recalled happier days tramping the countryside with Gustav Holst in search of the remnants of a rural musical past. This would have been intensified by the insecurities of the battlefield surroundings.
This remembrance of happier times surely coloured much that is in this symphony.
Secondly, the landscape of Northern France is in many ways similar to parts of England-and it was not all a sea of mud as the well-worn myth implies. It would have reminded the composer of those cheerier days. So, perhaps there is a touch of ‘cow and gate’ here, though this is definitely not the predominant mood.
One can only imagine his duties as an orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corp with a shudder. He must have witnessed things that no-one should ever have to see. True, there would have been lighter moments, humour, banter and the huge satisfaction of saving lives –and time spent on R&R behind the lines. However, the horrors would lie deep. The loss of friends would colour his thoughts. Vaughan Williams once wrote to Gustave Holst:-
‘I sometimes dread coming back to normal life with so many gaps’.  The name of George Butterworth springs to mind: there were many others. 
So, I believe that there is a deeply elegiac mood to much of this music. This is the composer’s War Requiem.
The Pastoral Symphony is a huge ‘tragedy’ modified by a great hope for the future. It is loss, but it is also a reflection on the nobler aspects of humankind’s nature.  This is music that looks forward to the triumph of Bunyan’s Pilgrim as he nears the end of his journey with a glimpse of the Celestial City from the ‘Delectable Mountains’. It also looks back to something more tragic in the pages of Job or more horrific in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

In this sense, Ralph Vaughan William’s Pastoral Symphony epitomises a subtle balance of melancholy with and active remembrance of the rural aspects of England that the composer recalled whilst on active service.
To be continued...