Thursday, 19 January 2017

It's not British, but...Schubert's Winterreise...

Listeners of a certain age (60+) will, like me, most probably have been introduced to by way of the iconic Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012) Deutsche Grammophon edition released in 1972 (he was accompanied by Gerald Moore).  Fischer-Dieskau recorded the work, with several pianists in 1955, 1963, 1966, 1972, 1980, 1986 and finally in 1990. Each edition will have its enthusiasts. I remember being introduced to this LP by a now highly-respected organist and professor of music. He regarded Winterreise as epitomising the genre: I have long-agreed with him - but see below for one ‘literary’ reservation.
Winterreise
Arkiv currently list 125 recordings of this masterpiece by various artists, with several ‘duplicates.’ It would take a Schubert Winterreise ‘groupy’ many pages to compare them all. I have lived for 44 years with Fischer-Dieskau: on LP, cassette, CD and download. It remains my ‘bench-mark.’

Just a few notes about Winterreise which may be of interest to anyone new to the song-cycle. Much of the work was composed during the spring of 1827 with the last ten songs written in the autumn of that year. There are 24 songs in total. The text is by the German poet Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827). Johann Mayrhofer (1787-1836) wrote that ‘Schubert had been ill for a long time, and had some unhappy experiences: the rosy gleam had disappeared from his life, and the winter had come to him in earnest. The poet’s despairing tone attracted him.’ Interestingly, the correction of the proofs of Winterreise was one of the last tasks the composer undertook before his death during the following year.

The theme of the cycle is that of a young man who has been jilted in love and choses to wander through a wintery landscape. The underlying mood of the music is utterly melancholic. For modern tastes the poet probably overeggs the thoughts of madness and death resulting from his lack of success in romance. He clearly forgets that there ‘are other fish in the sea.’ Not all the songs share the mood of desolation. The opening number is a case in point. This is more an affectionate reminisce on love born in May and lost as winter approaches. ‘Der Lindenbaum’, which is the most popular number in the cycle, also catches this slightly more optimistic mood. It is often recorded as a solo song.  ‘Die Post’ is full of hope, as the singer hears the ‘post horn’ and vainly anticipates a letter from his beloved. Even the final poem, which presents a Hurdy Gurdy Man, is not all desolation. There is a strange, ghostly beauty about this song that suggests that there can be salvation for the singer after all. Music making may assuage his pain.

My only reservation about this great song-cycle is that the poems can sometimes be a little overblown and overly sentimental in their conventional depiction of love lost. Sir Compton Mackenzie once suggested that much of the imagery is more akin to a Victorian Christmas or Valentine Day card: none, he declared, reach the literary heights of Robert Burns’ O my Luve's Like a Red, Red Rose’ or ‘Ae fond Kiss’. He (and I, as Scots, or in Mackenzie’s case a de facto Scot) may be biased!

The liner notes give a brief resume of Schubert’s career followed by a short introduction to the music. The biographical details of bass-baritone Johan Reuter and the Copenhagen Quartet are also given. The text of the poems is presented in German only. I understand that these songs are well-known, but this may be some listener’s first approach to these works. It is possible to find various translations on the internet, but many are copyright.

I have been bowled over by Johan Reuter’s stunning performance on this present CD. The singing is excellent and is consistently responsive to the changing moods of the poems. I have always preferred Winterreise sung by a baritone and not a tenor. There ought to be ‘something of the night’ about the singer’s delivery of most of these pessimistic and melancholic songs. Reuter certainly brings this ‘saturnine’ quality to the work. 

I had never heard Winterreise accompanied by a string quartet before. In understand that there are other editions for this format available. Despite still preferring a piano accompaniment this present version is a revelation. There is, as one online reviewer noted about a similar arrangement, a danger that the song-cycle can become a string quartet accompanied by a singer. This is not the case with the Copenhagen Quartet cellist’s splendid reworking of the piano part. The quartet adds a luminescence and clarity to the music that is (by instrumental definition) lacking in the piano version. It is a completely viable alternative that I will turn to on many occasions.

Track Listing:
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise, op.89, D111 (1827) transcription for string quartet, Richard Krug.
Johan Reuter (bass-baritone) Copenhagen String Quartet, Eugene Tichindeleanu (violin), John Bak Dinitzen (violin), Bernd Rinne (viola), Richard Krug (cello)
DANACORD DACOCD 759

Monday, 16 January 2017

Digitalisation of Valuable Classical Music Recordings

Rob Barnett, Editor-in-Chief of MusicWeb International and long-time member of the British Music Society has written to me as follows: -

In retirement, I now find myself with time to pursue various long-cherished projects. One of these is transferring cassettes and tape reel-to-reels of off-radio broadcasts and private recordings to CDR.

There is a sad history of valuable and occasionally irreplaceable recordings on cassettes and reels ending up in landfill when the music enthusiast dies. Other enthusiasts still have these tapes and reels in the loft or garage but lack the equipment to play them.

On an amateur, voluntary and non-commercial basis I have since 2013 been transferring such recordings to CDR for friends and colleagues. On occasion, I have travelled to an enthusiast's home and collected the reels and/or cassettes. I then take these homes and make the transfers onto CDR. I keep one copy for myself and return the original reels/cassettes with a CDR to the enthusiast. No charge is made. I do stress that I am not an audio-engineer or in any way a professional.

Obviously large numbers take a long time but I hope that this might be helpful to people and would also extend my knowledge of the repertoire and of performances.

If you are at all interested I would invite people to contact me at 


Thanks Rob, let us hope that some gems come to light….J

Friday, 13 January 2017

Maurice Lindsay on Music in Scotland 1945-46: a sketch Part II

Maurice Lindsay continued his exploration (Hinrichsen’s Musial Year Book 1947-48) of music by Scottish composers performed in Scotland by examining the contribution from the BBC.  He began by praising the BBC Scottish Orchestra which had developed from ‘a ragged body of players (long years ago) to a highly sensitive unified instrument…’
He noted that their conductor, Ian Whyte (1901-60) had performed two orchestral works by Francis George Scott 1880-1958) ‘a very distinguished composer, and a figure of European stature.’ The first was the ‘attractive’ overture ‘Renaissance’ (1937) which probably had more to do with the Scottish literary renaissance of the 20th century than that begun in Italy during the 1300s. Apparently, at that period (1945-6) it was frequently performed. The other work by Scott was the ballad for tenor and orchestra, Edward, Edward. (1943) which was a ‘masterly setting of one of the best of the old ballads.’ Scott is now recalled for his songs (where remembered at all) of which he composed more than 300.

The orchestra also gave the premiere of Ian Whyte’s tone poem ‘Edinburgh’ which Lindsay declared a ‘work of considerable intellectual strength which one would want to hear again.’ I have heard this work in a radio broadcast (28 March 1994) and would concur.  It is surely time for a retrospective CD of Whyte’s orchestral music.

Another important work heard during the 1945/6 season was Cedric Thorpe Davies’ First Symphony. This had won second prize in a Daily Express competition to produce a ‘Victory’ symphony. The winner was Bernard Stevens (1916-83) with his ‘Victory Symphony.’ Thorpe Davies’ work had been performed in London under the baton of Constant Lambert and in Liverpool with John Barbirolli.  I have heard this symphony in a recording from a radio broadcast: it deserves a full professional recording.

Finally, Maurice Lindsay notes ‘a significant volume’ of Francis George Scott’s songs which were published in 1945 by Bayley and Ferguson. These eight songs for baritone included settings of texts by several Scottish poets, including George Campbell Hay, Robert Burbs, William Soutar and Hugh MacDiarmid.
Lindsay considered 'The Old Fisherman' and ‘The Kerry Shore-Loch Fyne’ by Campbell Hay, as being ‘the most moving songs I have ever heard.’ He recognised that the use of poetry written in the Scots’ language ‘may keep singers away from his work.’ However, this volume also included four songs in ‘standard English.’  The MacDiarmid poem, ‘Reid-e’en’, is written in that author’s ‘Renaissance Scots’ which was very much his own literary language.

There is a CD of Francis George Scott’s songs issued by Signum Records in 2007. It is reviewed on MusicWeb International. None of the songs in the 1945 album are included on this retrospective. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Alan Rawsthorne: A Portrait – Woodwind Concertos and Chamber Works

This retrospective of Alan Rawsthorne’s music is a mixture of previously released pieces with three newly-recorded works. The Oboe Quartet, the Studies on a Theme by Bach for string trio and the Concerto for oboe and string orchestra were issued on the ASC label in 2001. (ASC CS CD46). The other works were recorded earlier this year (2016) in various locations for this CD.

The first of the two concertos presented on this CD is that for clarinet and string orchestra, dating from 1936. This work was first recorded on the Hyperion label in 1981 by Thea King and the Northwest Chamber Orchestra of Seattle conducted by Alun Francis.
The concerto is written in four movements. It is not long, yet it encompasses a wide range of emotion, mood and rhetoric. The clarinet is more of an ‘obligato’ part with the orchestra being of almost equal importance. The sound world is gently dissonant with moments of lyrical magic.
The slow movement, an ‘aria: adagio’, is profound and intense in its lugubrious exposition. On the other hand, the opening Prelude is ‘wistful’ and ‘engaging.’ The second movement is a breezy ‘capriccio’ that is interrupted by unexpected silences. The finale is described as an ‘invention’. It is the ‘lightest’ movement in the entire work. All in all, the Clarinet Concerto is a well-balanced piece that displays the skill and technique of composer and soloist to great effect.  As a bonus, the revised ending of this work is presented.
The concerto was composed for Frederick ‘Jack’ Thurston, the husband of Thea King. The premiere was at the Mercury Theatre on 22 February 1937.

The Quartet for oboe, violin, viola and cello (No.1) was written in 1935: it is the earliest piece on this CD. The work was first performed on 1 October of that year at the London Contemporary Music Centre, Cowdray Hall.  The musicians were Helen Gaskell, Jean Pougnot, William Primrose and Bernard Richards.
John McCabe notes that an ‘interesting feature of this Quartet is that each movement is longer than the preceding one.’ The composer’s use of contrapuntal devices – fugue and canon - display considerable confidence. However, this technical display is balanced by moments of lyrical repose in a work that is often acerbic in mood. 
The Times (2 October 1935) reviewer of this recital was impressed: he noted the fine fugal movement with which the work concludes. His main comment was that the oboe was used ‘as a thicker thread in the texture’ rather than as a ‘quasi-solo instrument.’

‘Studies on a theme by Bach’ for string trio was composed in 1936. The work is based on the first four notes of fugue of Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, No 4. John McCabe has pointed out that this motive ‘fits perfectly with Rawsthorne’s characteristic use of thematic cells from which harmony and melody can be derived.’  The liner notes suggest that the title ‘studies’ could give an impression that the piece is purely an academic exercise.  This is partly the case. The composer was manifestly developing his skills at writing counterpoint in a modernistic, but always poetic, style. On the other hand, there is nothing ‘dry as dust’ about this music. It immediately communicates with the listener, revealing a reflective mood. This short work is in three parts, a thoughtful opening ‘adagio’ followed by a fugue ‘allegro moderato’ before concluding with a dynamic ‘prestissimo.’  This is the first time I have heard this work, and found it both imaginative and moving.

Brother James’s Air for cello and piano is a lovely straightforward piece, that has no pretensions at portraying a modern idiom. It was composed around 1941.  Most listeners will associate this tune with Harold Darke’s lovely arrangement for organ. The original melody was composed by the poet and mystic James Leith Macbeth Bain (c.1840-1925) and is most often heard with the words ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’

I first heard Alan Rawsthorne’s Cello Sonata in C major on the an old Pye Record (GSGC 7060) with George Isaac (cello) and Eric Harrison (piano). It was coupled with the great Concerto for String Orchestra (1949) and the Piano Quintet (1968). Since that time, it has been issued on the Naxos, Chandos and ASV labels.   
The sonata was composed in 1948 at the same time as Rawsthorne’s Clarinet Concerto and the film score for Sarabande for Dead Lovers. It was dedicated to Anthony Pini and Wilfred Parry who gave the premiere on 21 January 1949.
The work is in three movements of almost equal length: conventionally it has been analysed as presenting seven distinct sections. Sebastian Forbes has defined this as ‘slow-fast’ 1st movement, slow-fast-slow, 2nd movement and finally ‘fast-slow’ for the concluding ‘allegro molto.’
Paul Hamburger (Music Survey, Spring 1950) wittily remarked that the opening six-bar phrase which consisted of two three-bar phrases ‘in which every note of the whole sonata is contained like the chicken in the egg.’
The key to appreciating this work is to enjoy the composer’s ability to balance ‘variety’ and ‘identity.’ In other words, he can make a small amount of material interesting and satisfying. The liner notes define the mood of this sonata: ‘this is a short, taut work riven with dark emotions, anger, melancholy, passion and, finally, resignation, with occasional glimpses of exceptional lyrical beauty.’  It has been well-described as ‘Rawsthorne’s Miniature Masterpiece.’ It is thoughtfully played here.

John Turner writes that A Most Eloquent Music was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961 for that year’s production of Hamlet. It was first heard on 11 April of that year.  This brief work is meant to be heard on stage: it is part of a larger selection of incidental music written for the play. The movement heard here supports Act III Scene 2, ‘Re-enter players with recorders.’ Two recorders are supported by a lute.  It is an attractive pastiche of ‘early’ music that says more about Rawsthorne’s style than that of musicians in Shakespeare’s day.

The final work on this CD is the Concerto for oboe and string orchestra. This was composed for the Cheltenham Festival in 1947 and was premiered by its dedicatee Evelyn Rothwell (Lady Barbirolli) and the Hallé Orchestra conducted by the composer. The work is written in three balanced movements. The liner notes state that Rawsthorne turned to French Overture form for the opening movement, with its slow ‘maestoso appassionato’ followed by a lively-ish middle section which is an elaboration of the introduction. Finally, the opening is revisited, this time it is even ‘more ruminative and plaintive.’ The second movement has an unusual title: ‘allegretto con morbidezza’ which appears a contradiction in terms until one realises that it is not played ‘morbidly’ but with ‘tenderness’ and ‘delicacy.’ Although the composer uses a waltz as part of this section, it continues the mood of introspection advanced in the first movement.
The final movement ‘vivace’ is characterised by wit and jocundity, derived from its prevailing ‘jig-cum-tarantella’ although the introspective mood is never quite dispelled.
This is my favourite work on this CD. It is an adeptly scored piece that exploits the colours of the oboe despite the generally restrained temper of the music. The interest of this work never lapses. It is beautifully played by Jill Crowther.

The excellent liner notes are derived from the original ASC CD with additional material by John Turner, Andrew Mayes, and Linda Merrick. I was not impressed with the cover design -to me it seemed less than eye-catching in its impact.  The sound quality is outstanding for all these works – old and new.

The Studies and the Oboe Quartet are not currently available anywhere else: the ASC disc is deleted and seemingly not available as MP3. The Clarinet and Oboe Concertos have been issued in alternative versions by Hyperion and Naxos respectively. It is not a question of either/or. Vaughan Williams’s impressive Oboe Concerto presently numbers some 14 versions and Gerald Finzi’s popular Clarinet Concerto has more than a dozen recordings in the Arkiv catalogue. It seems little to ask of enthusiasts of Alan Rawsthorne to invest in the only two available versions of his important Oboe and Clarinet concerti.  All of them are remarkable performances.
As noted above the Cello Sonata has been released in several versions. Brother James’ Air and A Most Eloquent Music are premiere recordings.  

This is an essential recording for all enthusiasts of Alan Rawsthorne’s music. It may well concentrate on music featuring woodwind, but it is still a splendid retrospective and vital portrait of the composer’s music. 

Track Listing:
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-71)
Concerto for clarinet and string orchestra (1936)
Quartet (No.1) for oboe and string trio (1935)
Studies on a theme by Bach (1936)
Brother James Air for cello and piano (1941)
Sonata for cello and piano (1948)
A Most Eloquent Music (1961)
Concerto for oboe and string orchestra (1947)
Linda Merrick (clarinet) Manchester Sinfonia/ Richard Howarth (Clarinet Concerto)
Sylvia Harper (oboe) Jake Rea (violin) David Aspin (viola) Joseph Spooner (cello) (Quartet)
Jake Rea (violin) David Aspin (viola) Joseph Spooner (cello) (Studies)
Joseph Spooner (cello) David Owen Norris (piano) (Brother James’ Air, Cello Sonata)
John Turner, Laura Robinson (recorders) Roger Child (lute) (A Most Eloquent Music)
Jill Crowther (oboe) The English Northern Philharmonia/Alan Cuckston (Oboe Concerto)
PRIMA FACIE PRCD053 

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Maurice Lindsay on Music in Scotland 1945-46: a sketch Part I

In the Hinrichsen’s Musial Year Book 1947-48, the celebrated Scottish author Maurice Lindsay gives an overview of post-war (1945-46) music making in Scotland. After a general report on the activities of the Scottish Orchestra (now, Royal Scottish National Orchestra) and their conductor Warwick Braithwaite, he considers music performed by ‘local composers.’  He believed that ‘Scottish music was better represented during the 1945-46 season than ever before.’ This has been the result of ‘a long campaign waged by a few local music lovers who felt that Scottish composers were wrongfully neglected.’
Lindsay felt that the ‘most satisfying work’ was Hamish MacCunn’s ‘attractive, though Mendelssohnian’ Land of the Mountain and the Flood (there are currently (2016) four versions in the Arkiv CD catalogue). This is still a popular work with record companies and Classic FM: it may be one of very few Scottish works generally known to listeners.  

Interestingly, Lindsay notes that four movements of Erik Chisholm’s ballet score The Forsaken Merman (1936, fp.1940) were also heard performed by the orchestra. This is a work that has been recorded in the composer’s two-piano version. It is a wonderful score that fuses ‘sea-music’ with Scottish tunes. It deserves a full orchestral performance in the concert hall or on CD.
Tantalising references are given to two forgotten works: W.B. Moonie’s ‘light hearted, tuneful rhapsody’ Springtime on Tweed and W.J. Emery’s ‘gracious’ At a Spring Festival. I wonder where the scores are?

More Scottish music was performed by the Dunedin Society that season. This group existed for ‘the encouragement of contemporary Scottish art.’ The John MacArthur Orchestra performed Francis George Scott’s Lament for Heroes, Cedric Thorpe Davie’s The Forrigan Reel, (1945) ‘a suite for strings’, possibly No.2, by W.B. Moonie, [probably] ‘Three Scottish Dances’ (1936) by Ian Whyte.
The Dunedin Society seems to have folded: I can find no current references on the internet.
Other works given under the auspices of this society included Glasgow-born James Friskin’s (1886-1967) Piano Quintet, op.1 (1907). At this time, the composer was living in the United States: he was married to the English composer, Rebecca Clarke.  Three of John Blackwood McEwen’s string quartets were given, as well as his Little Sonata for violin and piano. Horace Fellowes was also the violin soloist in Robin Orr’s Sonatina (1946) and Alexander Mackenzie’s Benedictus (c.1889). This last work is now better known in its beautiful, Elgarian orchestral version. 

Much research would need to be done to uncover the dates, venues and performers of all these pieces. I present this simply as an impressionistic sketch of Scottish music performed during this season. It reveals how little there was, and how little has survived into the repertoire. I guess on the MacCunn (and possibly Mackenzie’s Benedictus) is safely established. The next post will consider what was broadcast by the BBC during the period 1945-46.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford: The Complete Organ Works, Volume 4. Daniel Cook: The Organ of Westminster Abbey

When I reviewed the first volume of this important series, I conceded that I was not familiar with the ‘organ’ section of Charles Villiers Stanford’s catalogue. Since then, I have had the pleasure of exploring three further instalments of Daniel Cook’s survey of the composer’s ‘complete organ works.’ The more I hear, the more I appreciate and enjoy this music. The present volume has not disappointed me.

The opening number on the CD, ‘By the sea shore’ was the first of Three Idylls, op.194 written around 1923. It is a little tone-poem for organ that quite clearly portrays a scene dear to the composer. This is real sea-music, complete with rolling waves and a surging tide. The other two Idylls are entitled ‘In the Country’ and ‘The Angelus’. Presumably they will be included on the next (final) volume.

In 1924, H.F.W. Deane & Sons published A Little Organ Book in Memory of Hubert Parry which contained specially composed pieces by a dozen of his contemporaries. Stanford’s chorale prelude is both moving and consoling in its gentle rhetoric. It is based on ‘Why does azure deck the sky?’ which was Parry’s very first published song.

The composer’s earliest published organ work is the Prelude and Fugue in E minor dating from around 1874. It was written whilst the 23-year-old composer was studying at Leipzig with Carl Reinecke. The listener will notice the inspiration of J.S. Bach as well as the influence of the more romantically-minded Joseph Rheinberger. The opening prelude is impressive in its sometimes powerful, occasionally wistful, mood of fantasy.  Jeremy Dibble, in the liner notes, points out that Stanford has produced a text-book fugue making use of a variety of formal procedures ‘as if [he] had something to prove in terms of his technique.’ For a ‘prentice work it is simply stunning.

The principal work on this CD is the Organ Sonata No.5 in A major, op.159 (1918). It is subtitled ‘Quasi una Fantasia.’ This was the last of a cycle of remarkable examples in this form.  The sonata is conceived in three movements; they are played without a break.  Stanford has made considerable use of his own hymn-tune ‘Engelberg’ which was composed for William Walsham How’s ‘For all the Saints’. This tune appears in various guises in the first and last movements. The middle section is a delightful intermezzo, which I think is one of the most magical things Stanford composed. There is something of the ‘horns of Elfland, faintly blowing’ about it.
The listener is never in doubt about skilfully tailored passage work for the organ and the obvious technical difficulty for the soloist.  Some critics (e.g. Fuller-Maitland) have noted that sometimes the invention seems to ‘flag a little’ and that there are ‘occasional dull passages,’ Peter Hardwick has suggested that it ‘shows much industry, but little inspiration.’ In all honesty, I do not feel that this sentiment applies to this sonata.

The Four Intermezzos, op.189 were composed after Stanford had retired from his position at the Royal College of Music. By this time, he was short of money. Jeremy Dibble reminds the listener that, at this date, there was little demand for Stanford’s large-scale works, which were deemed ‘old-fashioned.’ He therefore turned to writing miniatures for organ, piano, violin and vocalists. These Intermezzi are to certain extent pot-boilers for the organ loft. They display a considerable range of moods: from the gentle ‘pastorale’ setting of the first, by way of a dramatic and powerful ‘heroic’ march, a sentimental (but quite delightful) lullaby and concluding with a short and thoughtful intermezzo built on the ubiquitous ‘Londonderry Air’. These pieces were designed be used at recitals, church and cathedral services and for teaching purposes: they could well take on that role today.

The last work on this disc is the Installation March, op.108 which was composed in 1908. It was originally written for military band and played at the Installation of Lord Rayleigh as Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. It was subsequently arranged for organ solo. The march makes use of the Cambridge Chimes (G-E flat-F-B flat) as well as material derived from the composer’s incidental music to Aeschylus’ play The Eumenides (1885). It is an impressive, long (at over 10 minutes) march with a hugely contrasting trio section.

Daniel Cook is presently Sub Organist at Westminster Abbey. Prior to this appointment he was Organist and Choir Master at St David’s Cathedral in Wales. He is artistic director of the Mousai Singers. In recent years, Cook has issued a wide variety of CDs including notable and acclaimed surveys of organ music by Herbert Brewer, Herbert Sumsion, Walter Alcock and George Dyson.
The liner notes are written by the Stanford (and many other subjects) authority Jeremy Dibble and gives all the information required for enjoyment and understanding of this music. The insert also includes a specification of the superb four manual Harrison and Harrison organ installed in 1937 at the Abbey.

As with all the discs in this Stanford cycle the sound quality is ideal. The listener can shut their eyes and imagine being present in the great Westminster Abbey, hearing this fine music played on a splendid instrument. No better compliment can be paid. 
I understand that there will be one further volume in this series of ‘Stanford’s Complete Organ Music’: I look forward to this with considerable impatience.

Track Listing:
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Three Idylls, op.194: No.1 By the sea shore (c.1923)
Chorale Prelude (Little Organ Book) (pub.1924)
Prelude and Fugue in E minor (c.1874)
Sonata No.5 in A major, op.159 (1918)
Four Intermezzi, op.189 No.1 Pastorale, No.2 Marcia Eroica, No.3 Hush Song, No.4 Intermezzo on an Irish Air (1923)
Installation March, op.108 (1908)
Daniel Cook (organ)
PRIORY PRCD 1161 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

New Year's Greetings

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

Significant British Composer Anniversaries for 2017:

Bi-Centenaries:
Henry Brinley Richards (1817-85)
Thomas German-Reed (1817-88)

150 Years:
Herbert Bedford (1867-1945)
Robert Ernest Bryson (1867-1942)
Stanley Hawley (1867-1916)
Amy Elsie Horrocks (1867-c.1919)
Edward Woodall Naylor (1867-1934)
Thomas Tertius Noble (1867-1953)
Frederick Rosse (1867-1940)
Reginald Steggall (1867-1938)
Amherst Webber (1867-1946)

Centenaries:
Richard Arnell (1917-2009)
Francis Baines (1917-99)
Joyce Howard Barrell (1917-89)
Brian Boydell (1917-2000)
Reginald Smith Brindle (1917-2003)
Hugo Cole (1917-95)
Robert Farnon (1917-2005)
John Gardner (1917-2011)
Francis Jackson (b.1917)
John A Burgess Wilson [Anthony Burgess] (1917-93)

75th Anniversary (1942):
Martin Dalby (b.1942)
David Fanshawe (1942-2010)
John Purser (b.1942)
Francis Shaw (b.1942)

The big celebration in 2017 is the centenary of Francis Jackson, who is still very much part of the music-making scene. His achievement as an organist, choirmaster, and composer will hopefully be under considerable scrutiny as his birthday (2 October) approaches.
Richard Arnell died relatively recently (2009). His works have been subject to a major series of CD releases (mainly) by Dutton Epoch including all seven numbered symphonies, the ballets The Angels, Harlequin in April and The Great Detective, together with Punch and the Child, the string quartets and other chamber works.
Richard Farnon (1917-2005) has given pleasure to many music lovers over the years. He is one of the best loved and most prolific of the so-called ‘light’ composers. Yet listeners may be surprised to hear his impressive Symphony No.2 which is more profound that his delightful ‘Portrait of a Flirt’ and ‘Little Miss Molly’. Hopefully, he will be regularly heard on Classic FM during the coming year.

Neophyte composers who have dabbled with twelve tone music will have read Lancashire-born Reginald Smith Brindle’s (1917-2003) excellent book Serial Composition: they may have worked through several the exercises. Yet, his music is little known. His main achievement was in the field of chamber and vocal works. Let’s hope we hear a few of this work this coming year.

John Gardner’s Symphony No.2 has been released on Dutton Epoch in 2016 (coupled with John Veale’s Second Symphony. It is part of an ongoing appraisal of his music. However, he has a large catalogue of approachable music that demands further exploration.

In recent years, a start has been made on discovering the music of John A. Burgess Wilson, better known as the author Anthony Burgess. His other occupations include ‘novelist, critic, composer, librettist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, travel writer, broadcaster, translator, linguist and educationalist’. Enough activity for a dozen lifetimes. I look forward to more recordings of his music, to compliment the recent remarkable release on Naxos and the 2013 Metier retrospective. 

Finally, it is good to note that three of the composers celebrating their 75th birthdays are alive and well and active. John Purser, Martin Dalby have made considerable contributions to music in Scotland and farther afield over many years. Francis Shaw’s two piano concertos have been recently recorded on Lyrita to considerable acclaim. 

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Irish Piano Concertos by John Field and Philip Hammond

It is lazy musical criticism to call John Field ‘The Irish Chopin.’ Beethoven, Clementi and Moscheles were more pertinent influences on his music. On the other hand, he did invent the ‘Nocturne’ as a musical form. He is usually understood to have both anticipated and influenced Chopin rather than the other way about. Perhaps we should refer to Chopin as the ‘Polish Field’?
A few biographical notes will be of interest. John Field was born in Dublin on 26 July? 1782. He studied the piano with Napoli composer Tommaso Giordani who was living in Ireland at that time. Field’s debut recital in his home town was given when he was only ten years old. Two years later, in 1794, Field moved to London and became a pupil of Muzio Clementi. His career as a virtuoso pianist began in the capital and extended into Europe. In 1803 Field moved to Russia where he gained a considerable reputation as a teacher and performer. However, his lifestyle led to loss of finance and bad health. He made his last major tour of European musical centres between 1832 and 1834, but eventually his health declined. He died in Moscow on 23 January 1837.
John Field’s compositions include seven piano concertos, four piano sonatas, 18 Nocturnes and a variety of other piano pieces. 
In recent years, Field’s music has been rediscovered. Virtually everything he wrote is available on CD in a variety of versions. For, example, there are currently six recordings of this present concerto currently available in the Arkiv catalogue.

The Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat major as originally composed, lacked balance. There were only two movements- the opening ‘allegro moderato’ and the closing ‘tempo di polacca.’ In his later years, the composer would have interpolated one of his ‘Nocturnes’ as a slow movement during performance. In this present recording Michael McHale, has reimagined the lovely Nocturne in C minor (H.25) into a ‘reflective interlude.’ Interestingly Míceál O’Rourke in the Chandos recording (CHAN 9495) used the Nocturne in B flat in a similar manner. There exists an orchestrated version of a variant of this latter piece by Field himself. Patrick Piggott has suggested that this concerto may have been composed before the ‘second’. He based this reasoning on the two-movement form and the ‘relatively unsophisticated texture’ of some of the piano writing. It is believed that this work may date from 1806 when the composer was visiting St Petersburg.
The present performance by Michael McHale is exceptional. There have been critics who have declared that the opening and closing movements of this concerto outstay their welcome. McHale’s exploration of these pages proves that Field maybe did get the balance correct. Not his greatest concerto (No.2 in A flat probably holds that honour) but one that deserves concentration from the listener.

I have not come across the music of the Belfast-born (1951) composer Philip Hammond before. As well as a career composing, he is also a writer, teacher and broadcaster. For several years Hammond was a Director at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. I depend on the liner notes for details his music
The Piano Concerto was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 in 2014. The concerto received its premiere at the Ulster Hall on 5 January 2015. It was played by the Ulster Orchestra, with the present soloist and dedicatee, conducted by Nicolas Collon.

The composer has stated that he began this work during a ‘residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris.’ He spent eight months composing the music, and travelled to Croatia, Spain and Oregon, USA. He does not say if this travel was necessary to the completion of the work, or was incidental to it. He affirms that the stylistic ethos behind the concerto is one of ‘retro-romanticism’ and that he ‘draws on the Romantic tradition of showy virtuosity in which the soloist is unashamedly the centre of attention’.  Hammond has declared that two sources of inspiration for this concerto were the twenty-fourth prelude from Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier Book1 and the poem ‘Renouveau’ by the French writer Stéphane Mallarmé. This symbolist poem ‘contrasts springtime and winter.’

The Concerto is presented in three contrasting movements. The first is signed to be played ‘with drive and dynamic melodrama.’ This is dark, lugubrious music that has little humour or lightness of touch.  The second movement is ‘slow, sustained and meditative.’ On the other hand, its contemplative mood does not preclude some animated moments. The finale, ‘fast, rhythmic and accented’ is a ‘toccata.’ This is powerful, thrusting music that drives towards a powerful conclusion. There are quotations from the first movement which gives this concerto a formal satisfaction.
Philip Hammond openly regards this piano concerto as eclectic. He has reached into the past and has selected several pianistic devices that the has made his own. To this he has added some piquant dissonances and innovative orchestration. This is no minimalist meander or anodyne post-modern ramble. It is up to the listener to decide whether it is pastiche or a work that is on a trajectory. I feel that Hammond’s thoroughly enjoyable Concerto owes much to Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel and the cinematic piano concertos as evinced by Addinsell, Rota and Hermann. This is no bad thing.

Michael McHale will be known to listeners for the fine collection of British Clarinet Sonatas and The Lyrical Clarinet, featuring Michael Collins, clarinettist, issued by Chandos. McHale has performed several piano pieces on a retrospective album of Philip Hammond’s music. The liner notes, which are informative, without being analytical, are written by the soloist.  The CD is beautifully recorded, with superb sound and balance. Unfortunately, it is only 57 minutes long: something else could have been included as a filler.

This splendid CD presents two widely contrasting piano concertos both written by Irishmen. The playing by the soloist and orchestral are superb, the sound excellent and the presentation of the disc is ideal. It deserves to be widely played. I look forward to further releases from Michael McHale with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and their guest conductor Courtney Lewis.

Track Listing:
John FIELD (1782-1837) Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat major, H.32 (1806?)
Philip HAMMOND (b.1951) Piano Concerto (2014)
Michael McHale (piano) RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Courtney Lewis
RTÉ LYRIC CD150 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Yuletide Greetings

A Merry Christmas
To All Readers of 'The Land of Lost Content'




On Shepherds' Pipes

 O than the fairest day, thrice fairer night!
Night to blest days in which a sun doth rise,
Of which that golden age which clears the skies,
Is but a sparkling ray, a shadow-light:
And blessed ye, in silly pastors' sight,
Mild creatures, in whose warm crib now lies
That heaven-sent youngling, holy-maid-born Wight:
Midst, end, beginning of our prophecies:
Blest cottage that hath flowers in winter spread,
Though withered--blessed grass that hath the grace
To deck and be a carpet to that place.
Thus sang, unto the sounds, of oaten reed,
Before the Babe, the shepherds bowed on knees,
And springs ran nectar, honey dropt from trees.

William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649) 

Friday, 23 December 2016

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The First Nowell – a Nativity Play

At Christmastide, I try to listen to several pieces of music. These include J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Gerald Finzi’s In Terra Pax, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Hodie, the seasonal parts of Messiah and Marc-Antoine Charpentier Messe de Minuit pour Noël.
In my early days of listening to classical music, I heard a broadcast on BBC Radio 4 of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music for the nativity play, The First Nowell. It was broadcast on 23 December 1973.  I immediately warmed to this piece, feeling that it embodied much of the spirit of Christmas. I never heard this music again until 2006, when the Chandos record label issued it on a CD of Christmas music.  It has become one of my ‘must hear’ pieces for the season.
As a matter of detail, the version of The First Nowell that I heard in 1973 featured Sally le Sage and John Carol Case, both sadly no longer alive. The Serenata of London was conducted by Bernard Keefe.

Ursula Vaughan Williams, in her biography of RVW (OUP, 1964/1988) wrote: ‘Simona Pakenham [friend, and author of an appreciation of the composer] and her husband Noel Iliff bicycled over from Kensington to ask Ralph to provide music for a script Simona had made from medieval mystery plays.’ It was a ‘short Christmas piece that needed carol tunes and incidental music.’ The score had to be completed ‘by November for the singers to learn in time for a December matinee…’
The liner notes for the Chandos CD quotes Simona Pakenham’s explanation of the work’s genesis: ‘In early July 1958, I was asked by Austin Williams, the vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, to persuade Vaughan Williams to collaborate with me on the writing of a nativity play. This was to be given at a matinee at Drury Lane Theatre on 19 December in support of the Ockendon Venture – a charity that was building a village to house refugee children. I hesitated to put this to Vaughan Williams because I knew he was always busy with the composition of the moment… I went to tea at Hanover Terrace on 6 July and I was astonished that he considered the idea at all. The mere mention of Christmas inspired him. He had a passion for carols.’

Vaughan Williams did protest about the small size of the Drury Lane orchestra pit. He wrote to Simona Pakenham (24 August 1958): Very MUCH AGAINST MY WILL. I have arranged for an orchestra of 32…’ (ed. Cobbe, Hugh, Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams 1895-1958, Oxford, 2008). In a footnote, Cobbe states that the theatre management had insisted that the stage and orchestra pit layout for My Fair Lady would not be altered during the charity event.
The composer died two days after posting this letter.

The First Nowell was to be RVWs last ‘completed’ work.’ Due to the death of the composer, Roy Douglas, his amanuensis, was asked to complete and edit the work, so as not to disappoint the singers. When the score was examined it was found to be three-quarters complete (Douglas, Roy, Working with RVW, OUP, 1972) with fragmentary sketches (very rough) made for the remainder.  Douglas had to recreate the Procession of the Three Kings and some extra bars that were required for the ‘theatrical business’, which had to be done in ‘imitation Vaughan Williams.’  He wrote that the work was ‘completed from ‘first sketches, second drafts, third thoughts and semi-final scores.’’ The score, published by Oxford University Press in 1959, is clearly marked with details of what sections were composed by R.V.W. and those completed by R.D. (Roy Douglas).  Douglas did not want ‘posterity [to blame RVW] for my shortcomings.’ Bearing in mind the false rumours that had circulated after the war that Roy Douglas had orchestrated the elder composer’s symphonies, it was hardly surprising.

Ursula Vaughan Williams (op. cit.) noted that RVW ‘liked Simona’s choice of episodes and immediately started thinking about tunes to fit…he went to the box-room for carol books to start on it at once.’ Interestingly, she states that RVW was asked to take part, playing God and the eldest Shepherd, however he declined suggesting that ‘he’d stick to the music.’

The play gives the story of Christ’s birth - from the Annunciation through to the visit of the Magi at the Epiphany. It consists of spoken and singing parts, lasting for some 50 minutes. The concert version, which excludes dialogue, features a selection of 12 numbers: The score suggests that three more may be included ‘if wished.’  This lasts for just under half an hour and features soprano, baritone, mixed choir and orchestra.

John Cook (RVW Society Journal, October 2015) has reminded the listener that Pakenham insisted that the libretto was not ‘biblically accurate’. Nor was it intended to use ‘biblical’ props or costumes. She suggested that ‘any period of English costume between the thirteenth and the fifteenth century is suitable.’
Michael Kennedy’s catalogue of the composer’s music give the details of Vaughan Williams use of several traditional ‘Christmas’ tunes in his arrangement, including ‘God rest you merry, gentlemen’ ‘The Truth sent from above,’ ‘Angelus ad virginem’, the Salutation Carol, ‘Nowell, Nowell…, which is used to set the greeting of the angel Gabriel,’ two incarnations of ‘The Cherry Tree Carol,’ ‘As Joseph was walking,’ ‘A virgin most pure,’ ‘The Sussex Carol,’ and ‘How brightly shone the morning star’ in RVW's own translation. The work concludes with a beautiful version of The First Nowell. Clearly, the composer had compounded familiar tunes with rarities.
RVW once said: ‘I think that every Christmas play ought to begin with ‘God rest you Merry [Gentlemen]’ and end with ‘The First Nowell’’: he uses this formula here to great effect.

The First Nowell was premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London on 19 December 1958. It was performed by several soloists and speakers including Geraint Evans and John Westbrook. The St Martin-in-the-Fields Concert Orchestra and Singers were conducted by John Churchill. 

Frank Howes reviewed the premiere of The First Nowell in the The Times (20 December 1958). He began by reporting that ‘actors, musicians, dancers and comedians of the London theatre had contributed their arts and skills to raising £4000 [about £70,000 in 2016] for the refugee fund. From a musical point of view, Howes suggests that it has some resemblance to Rutland Boughton’s music drama Bethlehem (1915) although it was ‘less opera, more play.’  John Churchill, then organist of St Martin’s-in-the-Field, led the assembled forces ‘with authentic feeling for this music, formally so simple, emotionally so rich.’ He noted Roy Douglas’s contribution in completing the work. Douglas ‘knew Vaughan Williams’s mind and, perhaps a rarer accomplishment, could read his handwriting’
As for the text, Howes felt that it was ‘direct and so avoids preciosity.’ He noted that it incorporated ‘the comedy of the shepherds in their fields abiding with Mr. George Rose to impart a rustic accent to it…’ However, the libretto dealt ‘restrainedly with Joseph…’ and gave the Virgin Mary a ‘dignified simplicity.’

The Chandos CD (CHAN 10385) of The First Nowell is coupled with the equally attractive On Christmas Night composed in 1926 and the well-known Fantasia on Christmas Carols dating from 1912. Richard Hickox conducted the City of London Sinfonia, the Joyful Company of Singers, the soprano Sarah Fox and baritone Roderick Williams.
The editor of the Gramophone (December 2006) made the CD his ‘editor’s choice’ for the month: ‘There is no better way to get into the Christmas spirit than this enchanting RVW disc, which contains some delightful rarities…With glowing playing and singing under the baton of Richard Hickox, there is plenty for the head as well as the Christmas heart.’ 
On the website, Classical Net, Steve Schwartz suggests that listeners should not expect another Hodie but points out that the arrangement of the music is simpler, less ambitious and largely straightforward. 

Finally, Stephen Connock, in the liner notes (CHAN 10385) provides an ideal summary of The First Nowell’s appeal: ‘Vaughan Williams’s Christmas music in its freshness and warmth speaks directly to the heart. It is music to be played and cherished on Christmas Eve, at home, near the fire, with children safe and all at heart’s-ease.’

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Adeste Fideles Christmas Carols from Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal

It must always be problematic when planning a new CD of Christmas Carols: there are several options. It would be easy to assemble yet another programme of well-known tunes that have been sung interminably throughout the years. On the other hand, it would be possible to create an album full of unknown or rarely heard carols.  I guess that most choirs will opt for the middle road – old favourites coupled with some new discoveries. This present CD is no exception to this rule. I will mention several highlights.
I was delighted to hear at least a dozen carols that I was unfamiliar with or had ‘forgotten’ and was equally pleased to discover the ‘greats’ such as ‘O Come all ye Faithful’ in its Latin incarnation ‘Adeste Fideles’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ with the magnificent David Willcocks descants and organ accompaniments.  Other carols which no Yuletide CD can omit, include ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, complete with RVWs harmonisation.
There are musical connections to the Chapel here too. Thomas Weelkes, apparently often ‘in his cups,’ was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal during the 16th century and Richard Popplewell was (recently) onetime organist and choirmaster. Both have contributed interesting numbers to this CD. Weelkes powerful anthem is derived from a paraphrase of verses from the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke: the angels sing ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’. Popplewell’s contribution, ‘Blessed Jesu! Here we stand’ was recently sung at the christening of Prince George on 23 October 2013 and was originally composed for the Duke of Cambridge’s baptism on 4 August 1982. It is a lovely, thoughtful piece that works well as a ‘carol.’

One piece that caught my eye was John Gardner’s delightfully fresh and cheery version of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ which owes no debt whatsoever to the well-known tune. It was written for the St Paul’s Girl’s School in 1963.
Less-traditional pieces include Igor Stravinsky’s ‘atypical’ ‘Ave Maria,' Benjamin Britten’s ‘A New Year Carol’ and John Tavener’s ‘The Lamb.’ I have always enjoyed Jonathan Dove’s ‘The Three Kings’ to a text by crime-writer Dorothy L. Sayers. It presents an atmospheric picture of the ‘Three Kings’ visit to the Christ Child on a cold and frosty day.

A delight is Michael Head’s ‘The Little Road to Bethlehem’ which appears to have started life as a song rather than a choral piece. No CD of Christmas Carols would be complete without at least one example from the pen of John Rutter. ‘Sans Day Carol’ was an early arrangement made when he was an undergraduate and was transcribed from the singing of a certain Thomas Beard who lived in Cornwall. It is a variation on ‘The Holly and the Ivy’.
Herbert Howells’ ubiquitous A Spotless Rose is given a splendid performance that reflects the icy coldness of the night as well as the warmth of the stable.

There are many traditional carols and tunes from English, Welsh, Spanish, French and American traditions.  These have been arranged by well-known composers and musicians such as Malcolm Sargent, Charles Wood and George Guest.

The programme comes to a first-rate conclusion with the old favourite of wassailers, ‘We Wish you a Merry Christmas’ arranged here by Andrew Gant, former organist, choir master and composer to Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal. It is unusual in that it incorporates other carols into the musical texture.

The ambience of the recording is excellent. Compared to Kings College Cambridge and other competitors for seasonal listening, Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal is quite a small group (11 boys and 6 men).  This is not a problem, as it gives the performance a genial and intimate feel. The singing is always clear and well-enunciated. The liner notes written by Philip Borg-Wheeler give all the required information about each carol, as well as providing texts and translations.

This is a charming addition to the huge number of Christmas Carol CDs. The added-value is the warm and friendly mood created by this choir, which lends enchantment and magic to these diverse carols.

Track Listing:
‘Sans Day Carol’: English Traditional/John RUTTER
‘Mary had a Baby’: American Spiritual/Malcolm SARGENT
‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’: Elizabeth POSTON
‘Once in Royal David’s City’: Henry John GAUNTLETT/Arthur Henry MANN/David WILLCOCKS
‘Sussex Carol’: English Traditional/David WILLCOCKS
‘The Lamb’: John TAVENER
‘A Maiden Most Gentle’: French melody/Andrew CARTER
‘Hosanna to the Son of David’: Thomas WEELKES
‘The Three Kings’: Jonathon DOVE
‘A Spanish Carol’: Spanish traditional/Andrew CARTER
‘Suo Gân’: Welsh Traditional/George GUEST
‘When Jesus our Lord’: Felix MENDELSSOHN
‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’: English Traditional/Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS/Thomas ARMSTRONG
‘I Saw Three Ships’: English Traditional/David WILLCOCKS
‘The Little Road to Bethlehem’: Michael HEAD
‘Ding Dong! Merrily on High’: French Traditional/Charles WOOD
‘A New Year Carol’: Benjamin BRITTEN
‘Blessed Jesu! Here we Stand’: Richard POPPLEWELL
‘Ave Maria’: Igor STRAVINSKY
‘Adeste Fideles’: John Francis WADE/David WILLCOCKS
‘Three Kings from Persian Lands Afar’: Peter CORNELIUS/Ivor ATKINS
‘De Virgin Mary’: American Spiritual/Malcolm SARGENT
‘The Holly and the Ivy’: John GARDNER
‘A Spotless Rose’: Herbert HOWELLS
‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing!’: Felix MENDELSSOHN/David WILLCOCKS
‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’: English Traditional/Andrew GANT
Soloists: Peter Heywood, Cedric Amamoo, Jayden Tejuoso, Matthew Davies, Michael Clayton-Jolly, Harry Fetherstonhaugh, Oliver Davies, Maciek O’Shea, Jerome Finnis, Johnny Langridge, Andrew Tipple. The Choir of Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal/Huw Williams, Martyn Noble (organ)
Signum Classics SIGCD 460

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

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Charles Villiers Stanford: A (Very) Short Anecdote by Plunket Greene

Harry Plunket Greene (1865-1936) was a hugely popular Irish baritone and fly fishing enthusiast. He was the baritone soloist in the premiere of Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. Greene was also the son-in-law of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. In 1935 he published what was for many years the only biographical study of Charles Villiers Stanford.

The protagonist in this tale is Sir Robert Prescott Stewart (1825-1894), an all-round Irish musician: a composer, organist, conductor and teacher. He was ‘afternoon’ organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral between 1852 and 1861. Stewart was an inspiration to the young ‘Charlie’ Stanford. If this story is true, the composer would have been about nine years old…
Greene (p.36) wrote:
“Mr Henry Williams, late Secretary of the Board of Works in Dublin and himself a fine organist, tells me that one Sunday at St Patrick’s [Cathedral] Stewart was called away before the end of the service. He turned to Stanford who was in the organ loft with him and said, ‘Here, Charlie, play something,’ and left him to his fate, and Charlie promptly played the St Anne Prelude and Fugue from memory.” 

Any organist knows how difficult this work is, even for a technically accomplished recitalist: it was a rare achievement for Stanford.  

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Charles Villiers Stanford: Stabat Mater on Naxos

Ever since hearing the Chandos (CHAN 9548) premiere recording of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Stabat Mater, I have regarded it as a choral symphony with a Christian text, rather than a cantata or oratorio.
The work’s full title is explicit: Stabat Mater: A Symphonic Cantata for Soli, Chorus and Orchestra. If one listened to this work, but did not understand or recognise the language (Latin), one would not immediately guess its religious significance.
Another view of this work is propounded by Jeremy Dibble in the liner notes. He suggests that the work is permeated with an operatic rhetoric. Stanford always aspired to be regarded as a great composer of opera, and did contribute a number of important, but rarely performed, works to this genre. I certainly think that much of the music in the Stabat Mater could regarded as ‘English (or Irish) Verdi.’ It is the episodic structure of the work, the melodies, the use of a vocal quartet and the chorus acting as a ‘crowd’ witnessing the events, that lead me to this opinion.
Charles Porte (Sir Charles V. Stanford. London: Kegan Paul, 1921) summed up the Stabat Mater’s musical success: he insisted that this work ‘has a certain melodic charm’ which is balanced by ‘the dignity and seriousness of purpose’ expected from a work of this nature.

Dibble writes that ‘Stanford evidently conceived his interpretation of the medieval Latin hymn…not simply as a lament but as a dramatic portrayal of the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Judgment, the hope of Redemption and life in Paradise.’
Stanford’s Stabat Mater is presented in five movements, which sound as if they are ‘through composed’: they perfectly reflect the progress of the text. The opening ‘prelude’ and the third movement, a commanding Intermezzo, are for orchestra alone, validating the symphonic status of the work.  The title ‘Intermezzo’ does seem a little ‘light’ for such a deeply-felt text.  The other three movements consider the Virgin Mary kneeling before the Cross, the author begging the Virgin to be able to share in her sorrow and lastly the vision of the Day of Judgement and the ‘glory of paradise.’
The text of the Stabat Mater was devised by Jacopone da Todi or possibly Pope Innocent III: it is not ostensibly liturgical but was used for devotional purposes. It was banned for use by the Council of Trent, but was later included in the Roman Missal as a sequence in 1727. It has been set by many composers, including Rossini, Howells and Verdi.
The work was first performed at the Leeds Triennial Festival on 10 October 1907 under the composer’s direction.

It is difficult to believe that Stanford’s choral work Song to the Soul, op.97b was never performed in his lifetime. It was composed just prior to the First World War in 1913, for a projected trip to the United States where it was due to be performed at the 1914 Norfolk Festival in Connecticut. The material was taken from Stanford’s Songs of Faith, op.97 which had been written in 1906. Those six ‘songs’ for voice and piano, derived their inspiration from the ‘religious’ poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Walt Whitman, which did not necessarily reflect orthodox Christianity.  The war situation in Europe got in the way of plans, and the event was postponed. When it was rearranged for 1915, Stanford was unable to attend, and the new work was abandoned in favour of the composer’s earlier orchestrations of the songs To the Soul and Tears, tears, tears for baritone also from the Songs of Faith.

The text of Song to the Soul is taken from Whitman’s collection of poems, Leaves of Grass and consists of a conflation of two songs – ‘To the Soul’ and ‘Joy, Shipmate, Joy’. Enthusiasts of British music will recall that RVW used the words of the former in his Toward the Unknown Region and Delius the latter in his Songs of Farewell.
The present work opens with a deeply-felt orchestral prelude, which is one the loveliest things Stanford penned. The choir enters with the powerful words ‘Darest thou now, O Soul walk out with me toward the unknown region’. The choral writing is a clever juxtaposition of introverted and thoughtful singing with exclamations of great power and optimism. The work ends in a quiet review of what has just gone past. For this listener, it is a superb choral work that should be in the repertoire of all choral societies. It is unbelievable that the premiere was not given until 16 My 2015, 101 years after planned, by the RTE Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, conducted by David Hill.

I have never heard Stanford’s beautiful The Resurrection (Die Auferstehung) op.5 before. This is an early work composed when the Grand Old Man was only 23 years old. It was written at Leipzig whilst the Stanford was studying composition with Carl Reinecke.  His teacher recommended the work to Joseph Barnby for possible performance at the Royal Albert Hall. It was not taken up. Eventually Stanford presented the work at a Cambridge University Musical Society concert in 1875. The text of the work was from an eponymous poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock translated by Catherine Winkworth. Interestingly, when Mahler came to compose his massive Symphony No.2 ‘Resurrection’ he went to the same poetic source.
The listener can best approach The Resurrection by understanding that it is written in three parts. The work is prefaced by a slow, introduction for brass and strings. The first section featuring the chorus is a lively exposition of the words ‘Rise Again’. This is followed by a tenor solo which has a chamber music feel to it. The soloist meditates on ‘My destin’d years of slumber’ before ‘The weary pilgrim’s sorrow is no more…’  Finally, the tenor and chorus join forces in a reflective passage before the work concludes in a blaze of glory. It is an optimistic work, that sounds eminently singeable. By any stretch of the imagination, this is a major choral work, by one of the masters of Victorian music that has lain dormant for too many years. The advertising blurb is correct: this early work ‘balances solemnity with rapturous affirmation.’ For a ‘first’ choral work, it is surely a minor masterpiece.

As would be expected, The Bach Choir, the soloists and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the baton of David Hill give an inspirational and often moving account of all three works. The dynamics of the recording are splendid. It goes without saying that Jeremy Dibble has provided essential and enlightening liner notes. The texts of all three works are provided.  

This CD is fast lining itself up to be one of my ‘discs of the year.’ From a personal point of view, although I recognise that the Stabat Mater is an absolute masterpiece and is stunningly presented on this CD, I do not warm to it. I need to try to understand why, so I will listen again in the next few days and follow it in the score. However, the opportunity to hear two major choral works by Stanford that I have never heard before makes this disc a real treasure. ‘The Resurrection’ and ‘Song to the Soul’ are two beautiful pieces of music that will long linger in the mind’s ear. 

Track Listing:
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Stabat Mater: Symphonic Cantata, op.96 (1906)
Song to the Soul, op.97b (1913)
The Resurrection (1875)
Elizabeth Cragg (soprano), Catharine Hopper (mezzo soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), David Soar (bass), Jesper Svedberg (cello, The Resurrection), The Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Hill
NAXOS 8.573512
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.