Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Franz Reizenstein: Piano Music on Lyrtia

My earliest introduction to Franz Reizenstein was in Harrods in Knightsbridge, London. In 1974, that iconic store had an excellent record department. Amongst the browsers, I found two Lyrita albums of piano music: one by William Wordsworth and the other by the present composer (RCS13 & RCS19). I had already begun collecting this wonderful record label, but these two discs were the first of the old ‘mono’ albums that I had come across.  Reizenstein’s piano music had been issued as far back as 1959, so I am assuming that what Harrods had was ‘old stock’.  Nevertheless, it was difficult to possess my soul with patience until I got back to Glasgow and was able to listen to these two LPs. I recall being impressed, if a little disappointed: I guess I thought that this music would sound more like Bax or Ireland. Since then, I have followed the trickle of works released on vinyl and CD from both of these composers. At present there are some 20 works by Reizenstein on 9 albums currently listed on the Arkiv Website. (Wordsworth has 5 works on 2 discs)
Around the same time, I bought a collection of ‘educational’ albums for piano – Five by Ten published by Lengnick. These were ‘modern’ pieces especially written for the collection by ten composers including William Alywn, Elizabeth Maconchy, Malcolm Arnold and Reizenstein. Unfortunately Reizenstein’s contribution to this series has not been included in the CD collection. They may not be the most profound of works, but they are neat, well written and designed to trap the unwary or over confident (as I found out).

There is a good, if brief, biography of Reizenstein on the excellent website dedicated to the composer’s life and achievement, which I recommend to all listeners of these discs. A few notes may be of interest to readers. Franz Reizenstein can be classified as an honorary English composer. Along with Hans Gal, Egon Wellesz and Mátyás Seiber, he escaped Nazi Germany before the Second World War and began a new life in Britain. All these composers surely fall into the category of ‘unjustly neglected masters.’
Reizenstein was born in Nuremberg, Germany in 1911. Following study with Paul Hindemith in Berlin (1930-4) he settled in London. During this period he was a pupil of Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music (1934-6). After the war, during which he was interned until RVW pleaded on his behalf, he taught piano at the Royal Academy of Music and also at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music). He regularly played piano in chamber music groups.
His catalogue of compositions is not extensive, but includes a radio opera, Anna Kraus, a large-scale oratorio Genesis, concertos for piano (2), violin and cello. He wrote a deal of chamber music as well as a number of works for piano solo. He is best recalled for his two ‘important’ contributions to the Hoffnung Festivals – Let’s Fake an Opera and the ‘Concerto popolare’.
Grove’s Dictionary outlines three creative periods of Reizenstein’s music. The first, from 1936-1945 often displays vigorous energy, fugato textures counterpoised to an ‘eloquent lyricism’. The second period, 1947-1959, saw the composer reach his mature style There is a deeper ‘elegiac, expressive power’ in this music: he makes frequent use of chords of the 4th and semitones. His textures involve an exploration of modality (not in an archaic sense) and polytonality. Bartok and Hindemith are his models here. His final period included film music which was more romantic than his earlier works. He was master of pastiche as the contributions to Hoffnung suggest. Franz Reizenstein died in London in 1968, aged 57.

The recording history of Franz Reizenstein’s music is not extensive. At present the only real competition to this Lyrita release is the composer’s own album noted above. This is still available in mono in REAM2105. Philip Martin issued a fine selection of Reizenstein’ music on Continuum (Continuum CCD1007): this is now only available on download. I note that Kolja Lessing released an album (EDA Edition Abseits EDA20) including the violin and viola sonatas as well as the Sonata No.1 for piano. As a soloist playing both violin and piano she ‘double tracked’ the two former works. I have not heard this disc.

A great place to start this three disc set is with the Variations on ‘The Lambeth Walk’ (c.1958). This piece points up Reizenstein’s undoubted skill as a master of parody. The theme is the well-known tune from the revue Me and My Girl which is presented in the then-contemporary ‘Cockney’ sing-a-long style.   A number of famous composers feature in these variations: Chopin, Verdi, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Wagner and Liszt. There are snatches of those composers’ music quoted as well as their ‘take’ on ‘The Lambeth Walk’.  The work was originally an improvisation made by the composer at a party. There was never a published score, only a recording (on a long deleted Parlophone record) and a few written notes – a batting list for Reizenstein’s personal use. This is definitely the case of a ‘serious’ composer letting his hair down. It would make a great encore at any recital.

The presentation of the piano music on these three discs is largely chronological which allows the listener to explore the ‘periods’ outlined above.
Reizenstein’s first published work was his Suite for piano, op.6 (1936) which written whilst he was a student at the Royal College of Music. It is dedicated to his teacher there, Vaughan Williams. Listening to this work reveals a kind of musical dichotomy. The faster, more robust movements of this suite owe much to Paul Hindemith, whereas the reflective sections nod to RVW. There is also an occasional ‘Prokofivean’ swagger. The Suite is in seven contrasting, but unified, movements. I enjoyed this work, especially the delicious ‘aria’ (2) and the final ‘tarantella’ (7).
Three years later Reizenstein issued his Impromptu, op.14. This is an easy-going piece that seems on face value to belong fairly and squarely in the English style as exemplified by Ireland. It is a beautiful work.
The Scherzo in A: Concert Piece for piano op.21 (1947) is powerful music that is largely staccato throughout with the exception of the lento section where the composer presents the two principal themes simultaneously. The work closes with a blistering coda. This Scherzo was dedicated to ‘William Montagu-Pollock in friendship.’ Pollock was a politician, an ambassador and was deeply interested in the promotion of modern music during the 1930s at the London Contemporary Music Centre.
The short Intermezzo was written in 1941: it is an attractive work that uses the minimum of musical material. The opening and closing of this piece are elusive, with a little more drama in the central section.

The Sonata in B, op.19 (1944) was dedicated to William Walton. My first hearing of this work back in 1974 in the composer’s recording on Lyrita caught my imagination.
Contemporary reviewers were quick to criticise the work for its use of ‘unassimilated styles’ -it was felt that the fingerprints of Hindemith and Rawsthorne (little Walton, though) were prominent in this work. This Sonata is neo-romantic rather than ‘modern’ in spite of some biting harmonies. The entire work covers a considerable range of emotion and displays an impressive grasp of form and exploits the piano’s technical capabilities.   The opening movement is intense, tempestuous and rhythmically diverse with syncopation and driving rhythms. The second is a huge contrast. This is typically quiet, reflective music that is lyrical and largely untroubled. Here and there an underlying passion does come to the surface. The finale is in the form of a rondo. The theme is both powerful and memorable. A number of the episodes use ‘fugato’ which was a fingerprint of Reizenstein’s style at this period. A fast, dynamic coda brings this hugely impressive sonata to a splendid conclusion.
The Legend, op.24 (1949) does not appear to have a ‘programme’ attached to it. Yet this is a delicious work that comes closer to the ‘English’ element of the composer’s style. It is a moody piece that has considerable harmonic variety without losing its innocence and freshness. The central section of the Legend is more unsettled, before the return of the main theme.
Eric Wetherall has suggested that the Scherzo Fantastique op.26 (1950) has a ‘bizarre almost diabolic atmosphere’. Certainly, this does seem to be the prevailing mood, with one or two moments of comparative relaxation. This long, complex piece makes huge demands on the pianist. In some ways the shadow of Chopin hangs over this work – not so much in the sound as in the formal construction and the pianistic figuration. Reizenstein did not use serialism in his music; the work does lean heavily towards an atonal mood rather than any obvious key.

Apart from the two sonatas, the most important work in this collection is the Twelve Preludes and Fugues, op.32 (1953/4). They were first performed on 8 December 1956 at an Arts Council concert with the composer as soloist.  The cycle was dedicated to Paul Hindemith. The key order of these 12 prelude and fugues derives from Hindemith’s ‘Series I’ which was published in his Craft of Musical Composition (1937). An interesting formal procedure is that the subject of each fugue is stated in its respective prelude. This is clearly cerebral music: not every one of the twelve numbers has an immediate impact. As a cycle (and I believe that they must be listened to as such) it is impressive and masterly. The composer displays a great understanding of counterpoint, polytonality (simultaneous combination of two or more keys) and the use of ‘transparent textures.’  For some idea as to what they ‘sound like’ I believe that Reger, Hindemith and Bach with a hint of Mendelssohn fits the bill. Paul Conway provides a detailed analysis in the liner notes of all twelve preludes and fugues.

The Sonata No.2 in A flat op.40 (1964) is a masterpiece. However, it has been criticised as being derivative, for example J.N. writing in The Gramophone (October 1960) suggested that some of Reizenstein’s music sounds as if someone ‘has been trying to warm Hindemith up with a shot of Rachmaninov.’ This can be argued for this present work but it does not alter the huge achievement of this music.  Written some 20 years after the first Sonata it can be regarded as the composer’s instrumental masterpiece. Certainly he reaches a ‘mature fulfilment’ in this work that is striking. It balances an almost blatant romanticism with a strong constructive principle utilising the tried and tested motto theme B-A-C-H.  The second movement is elegiac and commemorates the poet and librettist Christopher Hassall who had died in 1963. Hassall had provided the texts for a number of Reizenstein’s works including his opera, Anna Kraus. There are some lovely heart-rending moments in this music.  The finale is straightforward: it has been described as a ‘perpetuum mobile’ and ‘toccata-like’. Look out for a reiteration of the motto theme at the conclusion.

The Zodiac piano suite, op.47 was composed in 1965. It is made up of twelve short pieces which were published in three sets of four. Each symbolises one of the astrological signs. They would appear to be ‘graded’ pieces and become more difficult as the sequence progresses. The Suite is defined by humour, lucidity and conciseness.
In 1960 Reizenstein produced his Five Modern Pieces designed for the Associated Board examination schedules. There is nothing trivial or pedantic about these attractive little numbers. The titles of the pieces include ‘Secret Story’, ‘Victory’ and ‘Toccatina.’
There are a number of other educational works that are available in digital download from Lyrita (web address given in liner notes). These include Five Imaginative Pieces (c.1938), Seven Children’s Piano Pieces (1952), Study in Irregular Rhythms (c.1960), Three Pieces (c.1960) and Three Short Stories (c.1960). As noted above the pieces included in the albums Five by Ten are not recorded.

Finally, what can one say about Franz Reizenstein’s stunning arrangement for piano duet of Malcolm Arnold’s equally stunning English Dances Set 1 & 2? I have heard the second set performed on the quixotic Arnold CD Bright Jewels: Music from the 1940s and 1950s (MSV0214CD) so I was well-prepared to be impressed by Martin Jones’ and Adrian Farmer’s version on Lyrita. This is transcription at its very best. Every nuance and witty touch of the original orchestral score is retained in this version. Paul Conway has pointed out the allusions to the St Trinian’s music in the second and fourth Dances from Set 2. In some respects, the clarity of this music is enhanced by hearing the more focused sound of piano duet. This is great stuff. A perfect arrangement of one of my favourite Arnold scores.

This is one of the best of recent productions from Lyrita. I cannot fault anything about it. The liner notes by Paul Conway are absolutely essential reading for a good understanding of this outstanding piano music. Conway has provided a major essay on the composer as well as detailed analysis of each of the works.
Martin Jones has taken Franz Reizenstein to heart. He presents this music with deep understanding and clear enthusiasm.  The sound recording is superb as to be expected from anything produced by Lyrita.

There is no competition here. For anyone wanting the complete (nearly) piano works of Franz Reizenstein, this is the definitive edition. I do not imagine that there will be another competing version of this music in my lifetime. 

Franz REIZENSTEIN (1911-1968)
Disc One
Suite Op.6 (1936)
Impromptu Op.14 (1939)
Scherzo in A – Concert Piece for piano Op.20 (1947)
Intermezzo Op.17 (1941)
Sonata No.1 in B Op.19 (1944)
Legend Op.24 (1949)
Scherzo Fantastique Op.26 (1950)
Disc Two
Twelve Preludes & Fugues Op.32 (1953/54)
Variations on ‘The Lambeth Walk’ (c.1958)
Disc Three
Zodiac – piano suite Op.41 (1964)
Five Modern Pieces for Piano (1960)
Sonata No.2 in A flat Op.40 (1964)
Malcolm ARNOLD ‘English Dances’ Sets 1 & Set 2 (1950/1) arr. for piano duet (c. 1958)
Martin Jones (piano); Adrian Farmer (piano, Arnold Dances)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday, 13 December 2014

William Blezard: Suite Circle of Time for piano

The Suite Circle of Time (1975) is a meditation on the progress of the seasons. It is strange in that there are five sections – and there are only four seasons! The secret is the reprise of the New Year Carillon at the works conclusion. The Carillon opens the suite with its brittle, frosty bell figuration. It is definitely winter time-and a cold one at that. I remember walking along the Thames near Barnes one January morning and the frost had hit the riverside vegetation during the night. It was like fairyland. I wonder if Blezard had enjoyed a similar walk from his nearby home? The movement dedicated to spring is quicksilver – all over in 59 seconds. Yet a lot is said and the imagery of ‘small creatures that scuttle about’ is well described. Summer Haze is a perfect little tone picture. Once again I wonder if it is based on his home territory. Perhaps it is somewhere in Richmond Park when he would have heard ‘all the live murmur of a summer’s day.’ It is truly the heart of this delicious suite. Autumn Contrasts literally does that. The composer contrasts ‘vivace semiquaver triplets’ with much softer more introverted material. Autumn is often a sad time of year. With leaves blowing in the wind, the trees becoming bare and the days ‘drawing in.’ Fires burn and leaves are consumed. And finally winter returns – the New Year bells ring out the old and ring in the new. It ends with a perfect hush. This work for me is possibly the most moving of the Blezard opus that I have so far heard.
Circle of Time is available on Priory Records (PRCD 617) played by Eric Parkin. However, I believe that it has been deleted from the catalogues and is only available second hand. 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Bernard Stevens: Music Suite from The Mark of Cain

Bertha Stevens
I was watching a video recording of Ken Russell’s 1995 Southbank Show ‘Classic Widows’ the other day. This programme featured Susana Walton, Xenia Frankel, Fiona Searle and Bertha Stevens. Russell’s intention was to promote less-well known composers. Where the hugely successful Walton fitted into this scheme I am not sure. Contrariwise, Benjamin Frankel, Bernard Stevens and Humphrey Searle have not become household names.
The concept of the programme was to show how these widows were promoting their husbands’ music. It is not a particularly well-wrought film: it is clear that the four ladies were not used to speaking to a camera in these circumstances. The script and the delivery is often stilted. However, it is an informative and fascinating insight to the music of these four men.
Each of the four sections include a couple of extracts from the composer’s music. I was struck by the film score that Bernard Stevens (1916-1983) wrote for the 1948 British film The Mark of Cain. It is not my intention to plot-spoil for anyone who has not seen this film: I have not seen it myself. Save to say that it is based round the rival jealousies of two brothers when the younger marries a pretty French girl. It is a melodrama set in late Victorian-early Edwardian times.  The film stars Eric Portman, Sally Gray and James Hayter.
I turned to the only available reference book on the composer’s achievement – Bernard Stevens and his Music: A Symposium published in 1989 by Kahn and Averill, London. It was edited by his wife.
In the short section devoted to the film music Bertha Stevens notes that ‘the amount of music required for the film was considerable, including an imitation Tchaikovsky piano concerto demanded by the director’, Brian Desmond Hurst (1895-1986). Seemingly he was not prepared to use ‘the real thing.’
Bertha Stevens notes that this film was made at time when ‘dramatic highlights frequently took place at concerts, with the stars looking extremely glamorous in full evening dress, expressing suitable emotional reactions to the romantic music.’
One sour note is sounded by the composer’s widow – she points out that Stevens had produced a good ‘concerto piece’ however she ‘regrets that, although a few pencil sketches of his film music exist (he also wrote the scores to The Up-Turned Glass and Once a Jolly Swagman) the scores along with hundreds of others automatically taken into possession of the film companies have been lost.’  Finally, she was of the opinion that the music in the film was well-played by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the redoubtable Muir Mathieson but ‘was wasted by an incompetent director.’ Bertha Stevens rated Eric Portman but felt that the rest of the cast were ‘surprisingly ineffective.’

Music from The Mark of Cain was arranged into an ‘orchestral sequence’ by Adrian Williams. It was first performed as a ‘suite’ in 1995 by Carl Davis and the BBC Concert Orchestra. An extract of this Suite was issued on Chandos (CHAN7008).
There is a wide variety of moods in this short ten-minute suite, however, towards the end, the composer clearly wears his heart on his sleeve with a superb romantic tune worthy of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov or Richard Addinsell. The score includes a quotation from the French folksong ‘Bailero’ which was made famous by Joseph Canteloube in his ‘Songs of the Auvergne’.
The YouTube file is of the complete suite – I guess that it was taken from a radio broadcast as it does not appear to be listed in the CD catalogues.

Bertha Stevens died on 19 January 2012 aged 97.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Peter Dickinson: Organ, Piano and Violin Concertos on Heritage

Merseyside Echoes is one of the best pieces of cross-over music that I have heard. Dickinson has written that this work, which is dedicated to his son Jasper, is a ‘tribute’ to The Beatles. It was commissioned in 1986 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and was first performed there that year. It takes the form of a ‘rondo’ where the main theme is a ‘fanfare’ derived from an early organ work with the episodes being the ‘songs’. There is no direct quotation of the Fab Four, nevertheless the two songs are a definite pastiche of the Lennon/McCartney genre. These melodies are presented simultaneously in an Ivesian ‘counterpoint’ before the final fanfare sees the work to a conclusion. This piece highlights the composer’s ability to work in dissimilar genres and sound worlds. It is a composition that should appeal to all ‘baby-boomers’ and ought to be heard widely on radio and in the concert hall.  It is a great place to begin an exploration of this CD.

A few notes about the composer will be of interest. Peter Dickinson celebrates his 80th birthday this year (2014) on November 15. He was born in the Lancashire seaside town of Lytham St Annes. After Cambridge, where he was Organ Scholar at Queen’s College, he started to compose. With encouragement from Lennox Berkeley, he studied at the Julliard School of Music in New York in 1958. For the next three years he was a freelance performer and critic in the United States. On returning to the United Kingdom, Dickinson lectured at the College of St. Mark and St. John in Chelsea. In 1966 he moved to Birmingham University as Staff Tutor in Music.  Dickinson was appointed the first professor of music at Keele University in 1974 where he founded the Centre for American Music. Between 1991 and 1997 he was professor at Goldsmith’s College and was latterly Head of Music at the Institute of United States Studies at the University of London. Other appointments include a board member of Trinity College of Music and chairman of the Bernarr Rainbow Trust.
Peter Dickinson has shown a strong interest in performing British and American music. He has often appeared as piano accompanist for his sister, the mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson. As a writer, Dickinson has published a number of important books including studies of Lennox Berkeley, Lord Berners, Samuel Barber and Billy Mayerl.
Dickinson’s musical style is well-defined as ‘eclectic.’ Many of his works explore what would be regarded as ‘avant-garde’ techniques; other pieces are written in an immediately approachable manner. One of his more personal musical devices is ‘style modulation’ where ‘serious’ and popular styles are presented together. He has been inspired by ragtime, jazz, and pop music. His tools of composition include electronic playback, serial music and traditional forms. Dickinson’s sound world is very much his own, however he has clear connections with Stravinsky, Satie and Charles Ives.

The Organ Concerto and the Piano Concerto were issued on CD in 1986 on HMV EL270439-1 and later on Albany TROY360 These are the recordings re-released here. Merseyside Echoes and the Violin Concerto have been newly recorded for the present CD.
Peter Dickinson’s Organ Concerto dates from 1971 and is one of the finest examples of that genre I have heard. It was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival and dedicated to Simon Preston. The Concerto has been performed a number of times over the years with soloists including Christopher Robinson and the present recording with Jennifer Bate.  The prime theme of this work is derived from a ‘blues’ setting that the composer made of Lord Byron’s ‘So we’ll go no more a-roving.’ This song in turn made use of a passage from Maurice Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales.  The formal structure of the concerto is a single movement presented in nine hugely contrasting sections. The liner notes gives a detailed analysis of this work, however four things are worth saying. Firstly, the organ and orchestra are typically complimentary rather than antagonistic. Secondly, the composer has used a number of unexpected effects – for example in the third section an organ 2-foot stop plays a duet with a celeste. This is magical. There is a duet for two timpani over the organ’s rendition of the motto theme, first heard in the works opening bars. Thirdly, the climax of work is when the percussion manages to ‘obliterate’ the power of the organ. I believe this would sound terrifying in the concert hall. Finally, the music makes use of jazz, blues and more ‘traditional’ modernist musical harmonies and gestures. The concerto is at times beautiful, scary and mystical. Jennifer Bate is a tremendous advocate for this music. A masterpiece.

The Piano Concerto was completed thirteen years later and was dedicated to the present soloist Howard Shelley. It was commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival.  Like the Organ Concerto, this work is made up of contrasting sections rather than formal movements. There are a number of themes that are used as the building blocks of this concerto –a blues tune, a wayward toccata and a dirge. The ethos of the work is Dickinson’s trademark technique of contrasting ‘serious’ and ‘pop’ music both sequentially and simultaneously. A feature of this concerto is the ragtime ensemble (Track 10: Moderato). This is a deconstructed ‘rag’ which seems to ‘float in and out of earshot.’ I understand that an ordinary upright piano is used in this section which has definite nods towards Malcolm Arnold. Yet this cool music is followed by a powerful outburst from orchestra which is dissonant, confused (deliberately) and violent. Gradually, the music settles down and the concerto concludes with a quiet restrained presentation of the ‘blues’ theme. The genius of this work is the composer’s ability to amalgamate the various elements of the concerto without their being any sense of it being a mere patchwork of sundry ideas. A reviewer of this work (Gramophone August 1996) suggests that the listener ‘sees’ one music through another’ as the concerto progresses. It is a good tool for approaching this excellent work.

The latest work on this CD is the Violin Concerto from 1986. This was commissioned by the BBC and written in memory of the British violinist Ralph Holmes.  It was premièred by Ernst Kovacic with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Bryden Thomson. The inspiration for the concerto goes back to a performance that Holmes and Dickinson gave of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata in 1981. The composer has taken the principal subject of the first movement of this sonata and transformed it into, amongst other things, a 1930s popular song and a waltz. The formal structure is allegro-adagio-scherzo-finale presented a single movement. In spite of the fact that Dickinson has presented what can only be called ‘swung Beethoven’ this not a ‘jazz’ or ‘pop’ concerto as such. It is another example of his ‘layering’ technique which seeks to synthesise a number of different musical styles. The more ‘approachable’ elements of this concerto are often brusquely pushed aside by more complex and ‘serious’ musical devices. The Violin Concerto displays a great understanding of the technical possibilities of the instrument as well as a masterly knowledge of orchestration.
This is a new recording of this work made at the Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff in April of this year (2014). The performance by Chloë Hanslip is stunning. Her repertoire includes Adams, Glass, Nyman, Maxwell Davies and Weill, so she is ideally prepared to perform this present work. She brings understanding and sympathy to this beautiful, sometimes ravishing and often moving concerto.

This is a fantastic CD from Heritage which showcases four superb works by Peter Dickinson. It is well-presented, superbly recorded and brilliantly performed by the soloists and orchestras. The liner notes by the composer are detailed and essential for proactive listening. These works display Dickinson’s ability to write music that is at the same time approachable and challenging. His ability to fuse diverse musical styles is masterly. This is a fitting 80th birthday tribute to a great composer, performer, teacher and writer.

Peter DICKINSON (b.1934)
Piano Concerto (1979-84)
Violin Concerto (1986)
Organ Concerto (1971)
Merseyside Echoes (1986)
Howard Shelley (piano) Chloë Hanslip (violin) Jennifer Bate (organ) BBC Symphony Orchestra/David Atherton (Piano Concerto & Organ Concerto ) BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Clark Rundell (Violin Concerto & Merseyside Echoes)

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Hector Berlioz: Waverley Overture

I have never been an enthusiast of the music of Hector Berlioz, however since first hearing his two overtures, Waverley and Rob Roy played by Sir Alexander Gibson and (as it was then) the Scottish National Orchestra, I have been impressed by these two Walter Scott inspired works.
Waverley was the composer’s official Op.1 (now numbered H.26 in his catalogue) and was written between October 1826 and February 1828. The first performance was at the Berlioz debut concert at the Paris Conservatoire on 26 May 1828 conducted by Nathan Bloc. Waverley was eventually published by S. Richault of Paris in 1839. Berlioz inscribed his score with a quotation from the novel ‘While dreams of love and lady’s charms/Give place to honour and arms.’  The work was dedicated to ‘the dashing, sabre-scarred Colonel Félix Marmion’ who was a well-loved uncle of the composer. Scott enthusiasts will recognize this name as being the title of one of his great historical poems.
Hector Berlioz had acquired a copy of Walter Scott’s first Waverley novel during the early 1820s: it had been published anonymously in 1814. This was the writer’s first foray into historical fiction. It has been claimed for ‘Waverley’ that it was the first example of the genre. However, there are other contenders for that honour, including works by Greek and Roman classical authors. What made Scott’s writing unique was his attempt to present the narrative against a historically accurate background.  The succeeding books became known as the ‘Waverley Novels’ as they were advertised as being ‘by the author of Waverley’. In 1827 Walter Scott was identified as the author of the series.
The story of the eponymous book involves the adventures of a young and romantic English soldier Edward Waverley who is posted with the Hanoverian army to Scotland during the 1745 Jacobite uprising. The aim of this rebellion was Charles Edward Stuart’s (Bonnie Prince Charlie) ultimately unsuccessful attempt to re-establish the Stuart dynasty in Great Britain. Scott’s novel traces the adventures of Edward Waverley from the family home in the south of England to the Lowlands of Scotland and then to the Highlands.  Naturally he falls in love. Edward was to change sides to the Jacobite cause which led to a series of near escapes.
D. Kern Holoman has written that the Waverley Overture is probably the last of Berlioz’s works to be composed before his discovery of Beethoven, so it has more of the ‘conventions’  of French and Italian opera overtures than of Viennese sonata form. The work is in two parts – a slow introduction followed by a powerful and thrilling allegro that has a certain ‘Caledonian’ wildness about it. It is no accident that this has been deemed to musically represent the quotation from the novel at the head of the score. It is safe to say that the music is not an attempt at portraying the progress of the novel’s plot.
At the present time there are 16 versions of Hector Berlioz’s Waverley Overture in the Arkiv Catalogue. These include British performances by Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Alexander Gibson.
The work is widely available in YouTube.  The version I link to is by Beecham. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

Robert Still: The Four String Quartets on Lyrita

In the early 1970s I bought a copy of Robert Still’s Symphonies No.3 & 4 which had been released on Lyrita Records (SRCS 46). Since that time I have heard virtually nothing else by this composer. There have been a few recordings over the years including a retrospective of his chamber music on ISMERON JMSCD 8. (See review ) There is a file on the internet of a radio broadcast of the Concerto for string orchestra, which is one of the finest examples of that genre. The present CD from Naxos is a timely release that promises to give Still’s music a much wider audience.
A few words about Robert Still will be of interest to potential listeners who may not be familiar with the man and his music. He was born in 1910 and after an education at Eton, he studied history and French at Trinity College, Oxford. Destined for the legal profession, he changed direction and was enrolled at the Royal College of Music where he studied with Frank Kitson and Gordon Jacob. During the Second World War he served with the Royal Artillery. Before the war he had taught music at Eton and the Royal Academy of Music, however after demob in 1946 he settled in Bucklebury in Berkshire to devote himself to composition and musicology. In the 1960s he had further study with Hans Keller. His other interests included psychoanalysis and the playing of sport. He was an Oxford Blue at real tennis.
Still wrote a wide range of music including four symphonies, a piano concerto, and a large quantity of chamber works for diverse instrumentation. There is an opera, Oedipus and a number of songs. Robert Still died in 1971.
The key to understanding Still’s music is to realise that there was a hiatus in his style. The catalyst for this was his ‘conversations’ with Hans Keller. Until the early 1960s his music had been largely tonal with nods to the pre-war pastoral school, folksong, Tudor music and neo-romanticism. Robert Still realised that he would be unable to make progress in the new musical climate dominated by Britten, Tippet and the post-war avant-garde composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle. This trajectory was greatly encouraged by the BBC which was actively promoting ‘non-tonal music.’ The change in Still’s musical aesthetic was neatly summer up by Keller himself who admitted that he was ‘too old to be taught a new musical language though he proved himself to be very adept at adopting new ways of writing music outside the tonal system.’ Edward Clark, in the liner notes, points out that anyone wishing to examine this dichotomy of styles should compare the first two Quartets with the last two of the series. It is a great way to approach this music.
I do not want to allow the reader to run away with the idea that Robert Still had changed his style beyond recognition. He never became an avant-garde composer: he made increasing use of dissonance and allowed his music to push towards a more atonal sound.

Unfortunately Still was not assiduous in dating his compositions. The only certainty seems to be that Quartet No. 1 was written around 1948 when its premiere took place. It has been forgotten until the present revival. The Quartet No.2 was composed sometime later, but before Keller’s injunction to ‘update’ his style took hold. The final two examples date from after he had absorbed the musicologist’s advice.

Listeners nowadays are fortunate in being able to accept a variety of musical styles from a composer. No longer do we regard early ‘tonal’ works as being merely precursors to a ‘mature’ achievement. It is also not necessary to decry music that was not composed in the Glock/Keller ‘approved’ style. I concede that some listeners will find the two early quartets immediately approachable and downright tuneful. Others may regard these as derivative and belonging to an era of music long past its sell-by date in the post-Second World War world. I tend to enjoy the later works more: I feel that there is greater profundity and a deeper introspection in this music. However, the two early quartets are full of delightful music, interest and the sheer joy of being alive. As a cycle they are more unified than the compositional history would suggest. Interestingly, the excellent Robert Still website hints that there may have been a String Quartet No.5.

The liner notes by Edward Clark are informative and give the listener a good understanding of the ‘dislocation’ of styles in these works. It is prefaced with a short biographical note about the composer. The Villiers Quartet has made these four string quartets their own. I am conscious of a great sympathy in their playing of these works. Certainly, there is no sense of them being patronising in the earlier music: their interpretation of the later ‘atonal’ works is masterly.

So often one says this, but I reiterate: it is hard to believe that four string quartets of such skilful construction, quality and sheer attractiveness have remained hidden for over half a century. This CD is a must for all enthusiasts of British chamber music. I can only hope that much more of Robert Still’s music is forthcoming. 

Robert STILL (1910-1971)
String Quartet No.1 (c.1948)
String Quartet No.2
String Quartet No.3
String Quartet No.4
Villiers Quartet: James Dickenson (violin) Tamaki Higashi (violin) Carmen Flores (viola) Nicholas Stringfellow (cello)
NAXOS 8.571353 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday, 28 November 2014

The Arnold Bax Concert November 1922

In a recent post I quoted W.R. Anderson in The Gramophone magazine. He mentioned the Bax Festival which took place in 13 November 1922 at the Queen’s Hall in London. Fortunately for musical historians Edwin Evans was in attendance and wrote the following review for the Musical Times. No commentary is needed on this piece, save to mention that the two Christmas Carols seem to have disappeared from view. It must have been a fantastic concert. 

It is raking up an old story to dwell upon the advisability or the reverse of devoting an entire concert to the works of one composer, but in this instance the hero of the adventure has come singularly well out of the ordeal, owing to the unusual variety of the works included in the programme; and his publishers, Messrs. Murdoch, who organized the concert at Queen's Hall on November 13, are to be doubly congratulated on its success, and on being able to present such a programme drawn exclusively from their own publications. Neither trouble nor expense had been spared in securing this satisfactory result.
The Goossens Orchestra with its conductor, the Oriana Madrigal Society under Mr. C. Kennedy Scott, Miss Harriet Cohen, Mr. Lionel Tertis, and Mr. John Coates constituted a formidable array of performers of the foremost rank. Even the programme itself was issued in a sumptuous form, and, what is perhaps equally important, was issued in advance.
Without injustice to other participants, it may be claimed that three events of the evening stand out prominently as in themselves sufficient to make the concert memorable. The first was a performance such as we have not had before of The Garden of Fand, revealing all the fascination of its orchestral texture. The second was the choral virtuosity with which the extremely difficult ‘Mater Ora Filium’, for double choir unaccompanied, was given by the Oriana singers. It is one of Bax's finest compositions, though in a branch of music in which his mastery was until recently unsuspected. The cumulative effect of the elaborate 'Allelujas ' was magnificently impressive. The third was Lionel Tertis's playing of the Viola Concerto, now called a Phantasy for viola and orchestra. It was a pity that the orchestra was not more fully occupied, for, returning after a long interval, it did not infuse the same spirit into the performance of an arrangement of the pianoforte piece, Mediterranean, which concluded the programme at a very late hour. The Oriana singers, however, showed no signs of flagging when they supplemented their earlier triumph with the two other carols ‘Of a Rose I sing’ (GP 234) and ‘Now is the time of Christymas’ (GP 247)

Miss Harriet Cohen is a pianist of great musical intelligence as well as technical attainments, but even in the smaller concert-halls the massive Sonata in G taxes her physical strength to the utmost. At Queen's Hall its demands went a little further, and could be met only by occasional sacrifices of rhythm. She was more successful with the smaller pieces, such as Lullaby and Burlesque. Mr. John Coates's contribution to the programme was, as always, entirely admirable. The effect of the concert as a whole must inevitably be to consolidate Bax's reputation with the general public, in which connection it was gratifying to note the crowded condition of those portions of the hall which are generally held to be the barometer of public interest. The selection of works was also well calculated to convey a much better impression of Bax's status than has hitherto been feasible. The inclusion of a Pianoforte Sonata was perhaps open to question, for no extended work in one instrumental colouring could possibly hold its own in a programme which included the multi-coloured Garden of Fand. The smaller pianoforte pieces and songs are of course not open to the same objection, as the listener readily adjusts himself to the enjoyment of a group of miniatures between larger works. One point was definitely established: Bax's feeling for beauty in line and texture is of a kind that does not quickly satiate. E. E.

The Musical Times December 1922 [with minor edits]

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Arthur Butterworth: Symphony no.2 Op. 25 (1964) – A Half Centenary Review.

Arthur Butterworth died on 20 November 2014. He will be sorely missed by all his friends, colleagues and acquaintances. From a personal point of view he was always most helpful with my enquiries about his music. The essay that follows could not have been written without his considerable help. R.I.P.

It is a commonplace to insist that the ‘Symphony’ was a ‘dead form’ in the mid-twentieth century. Conversely, looking at the listings for 1964 discloses that a number of important British composers were producing valuable essays in this genre.  Works written or first performed in the same year as Butterworth’s Symphony no.2 included Frankel’s Third, Alan Rawsthorne’s Third, Humphrey Searle’s Fifth, Daniel Jones’ Sixth, and Kenneth Leighton’s First. The previous year had seen a performance of Robin Orr’s Symphony in One Movement and Havergal Brian had reached Symphony No. 21 in his extensive catalogue.

Arthur Butterworth has (to date) composed eight symphonies:-
Symphony no.1 op.15 (1957)
Symphony no.2 op. 25 (1964)
‘A Moorland Symphony’ for bass solo, chorus and orchestra op.32 (1967)
Symphony no.3 ‘Sinfonia Borealis’ op. 52 (1979)
Symphony no.4 op.72 (1986)
Symphony no.5 op.115 (2001-2)
Symphony no.6 op.124 (c 2005?)
Symphony no.7 op.140 (2011)
At the time of the composition of the Symphony no.2, Butterworth had completed a number of important works.  At the start of the previous year, 1963, the large-scale Moors Suite op.26 for orchestra and organ had been performed by the BBC Northern Orchestra under Stanford Robinson.  The following year, 1964, saw the brass-band version of the composer’s popular The Path across the Moors played by the Yorkshire Youth Brass Band. Finally, in that same year, incidental music for the school play The Castle of Perseverance was heard at Guiseley School, near Leeds.

After resigning his post as trumpeter with the Hallé Orchestra, Butterworth was involved with music-making in the West Riding of Yorkshire. This included teaching and conducting for the local education authority. He was also associated with Ermysted’s Grammar School in Skipton and had recently become conductor of the Halifax Symphony Orchestra and the Huddersfield Philharmonic Society.
In 1957, the première of Butterworth’s Symphony no. 1, op.15 at Cheltenham was attended by Jack Holgate, the secretary of the Bradford Subscription Concerts Society. This venerable organisation had more than ninety years of association with the Hallé Orchestra and was planning the celebration of its centenary. Holgate approached Butterworth after the Cheltenham performance and there and then commissioned him to write a new Symphony for that centenary. Butterworth told me: ‘I had almost eight years, 1957 to 1965, to write this work. I had not realised at that time that the forthcoming 100th season would begin in October 1964 (not 1965!) so I had to get a move on and make sure it was ready in time.’
The composer explained to me that until his Symphony no.1 (1957) he had been, ‘avowedly, primarily influenced by Sibelius and the obvious native relationship with Vaughan Williams and English music.’ As background information to this present work he recalled a casual meeting with the critic and musicologist Deryck Cooke on the steps of the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Cooke had heard that Butterworth had been commissioned to write a symphony for the 1965 Bradford/Hallé season. The composer explained to him that it was to be a kind of ‘bi-dedication to the Bradford/Hallé connection, but also to the Sibelius centenary’. Cooke had responded, ‘Ah! But you should remember 1965 also marks the centenary of Carl Nielsen too!’ Butterworth considered this appropriate: ‘So I did indeed incorporate the notion of not forgetting Nielsen's contribution to early 20th century symphonic development. Hence, the Symphony no.2 of mine does certainly acknowledge something of Nielsen and not just Sibelius: especially the opening of the last movement, and this I acknowledge unreservedly.’

One interesting anecdote that Butterworth told me referred to the use of tubular bells in the ‘adagio’. The critic Desmond Shawe-Taylor had written to him to say that he found ‘the bells distracting…’ Nonetheless there was a reason.  It was the composer’s custom to walk his dog in Heaton Park, Manchester on summer evenings: it was near to where he then lived. Butterworth recalled watching the sun ‘dip westwards behind the wide-stretching parkland and the park bell would sound so hauntingly.’ It was a ‘peculiarly evocative, romantic scene.’  The composer remarked to me that ‘What is perhaps never actually ‘said’ by instrumental music (such as a symphony) but is of course obvious in vocal music which relates a specific story through the words, is that it can - for the composer - 'tell' - or at least hint at, the inspiration behind the design of a particular passage. He may never actually reveal what has motivated or inspired it, but there is often (if not always) some specific private memory, and so it was with me’.
‘Mr Manchester’s Diary’ in the Manchester Evening News (October 30 1964) had provided a chatty approach to Butterworth’s new work.  He begins by stating that a ‘country dweller…took his dog walking from his home near Skipton [West Riding]…and wrote a symphony.’ He quoted the composer as saying that ‘I get all my inspiration at night…every evening I take the dog for a walk through the fields and lanes and there I find the peace and quiet to concentrate.’ Arthur Butterworth moved from Manchester to Skipton in September 1962, so both Heaton Park and the Yorkshire Dales have left their impression on this symphony.
Interestingly, these summertime nightly strolls with his dog were not in themselves the beginning of the musical inspiration for this work, but rather it went back more than twenty-five years to 1935 (when Butterworth was nearly 12).  It was a melancholy, rainy summer's evening when his mother died in hospital: being quite young, he was left in the porters' lodge whilst his father visited his dying wife. All he heard was the relentless tolling of the hospital bell signifying 'visiting time' was soon to be over. So, inspiration for this present work is a concatenation of various memories, ideas and impressions.

This essay concentrates on the genesis and reception of Arthur Butterworth’s Symphony no.2: a formal, technical analysis of this work is not appropriate here. However, a few details about the construction and progress of the symphony are of considerable interest.  The source of much of this analysis is the programme notes for the premiere produced by J.H. (Jack Holgate) in consultation with the composer.
The Symphony is in three movements: an opening ‘allegro molto’, an ‘adagio’ and a concluding ‘vivace’.  The ‘progression of the emotional tension’ of the work is likened to the letter “W” ‘with its various apexes corresponding to varied peaks of tension.’ As a general structural overview, it is cyclic, with thematic links between the first and second movements and the second and third.  As The Times (October 31 1964) reviewer states, it is the ‘identity of thought and idiom which locks the whole work together.’

The programme notes stress the fact that there is a strict economy of material used throughout this work. Reference is made to themes derived from the Symphony no.1 which are used to create the opening statement of the ‘allegro molto’ in the Second.  Paul Conway, who has made a detailed study of Butterworth’s music, has proposed that the present work ‘carries on where the volatile finale of the First Symphony left off’.  He has suggested that Butterworth realised that there was ‘previously untapped potential in that seminal work’. Is it that this present work is deemed to be a ‘sequel?’
The first bar with its immediate rising glissando of a tritone followed by a long downward ‘scale’ sets the general mood of this movement.  The second major theme mirrors the first with its rising scale first heard on the clarinet. These themes, after some development, are used to create what is effectively a scherzo, but without the expected ‘trio.’ The music does calm down and the opening movement concludes with a ‘calmer atmosphere’ bringing ‘clarification rather than complication of the initial material.’
The slow movement, an ‘adagio’, is clearly the heart of the work, in which the composer has invested much personal feeling and emotion. This is recognised by most critics. After a short opening phrase on the strings, the main theme is presented ‘adagio’ on a solo ‘cello.  This has considerable rhythmic subtlety in its relatively gentle unfolding. The addition of woodwind and brass bring an intense moment that is intensified by the use of rising and falling scales.  The main theme of the slow movement is repeated in an augmented version which has considerable passion.  The composer introduces what is effectively new material in the coda of the ‘adagio’ where ‘a strongly personal feeling of poignancy characterises the mood of resignation after tension.’ Percussion used here includes tubular bells which reflect the tolling of the hospital or Heaton Park bell as noted above.
The finale begins quietly with a short passage played on bassoons and builds up towards the conclusion of the movement. This theme has dotted rhythms and a touch of syncopation which imbue the music with a degree of urgency. The ‘vivace’ develops as a ‘moto perpetuo’ although there is a break in the activity when the oboe hints at a theme derived from the ‘adagio.’ As the music becomes more expansive, the tonality seems to become more stable: the ‘opening agitation promises to be resolved into a happy ending.’  The oboe presents a pastoral version of the main theme whilst the strings give a tranquil turn to this melody. Then the intensity of the music increases towards the conclusion. The work ends with a ‘whimsical enigmatic flourish’. J.H./Butterworth notes that ‘solutions to problems are often transitory rather than final.

First Performance and Reception
Unusually for a ‘provincial concert’ there were many journalists present at the première who were celebrating the Centenary. These represented the national and provincial press as well as a number of magazines and journals and the BBC. It is strange that the BBC did not choose to broadcast or record this work. 

The premiere was given at Bradford’s St. George’s Hall on Friday October 30 1964.   The concert also included Anton Dvorak’s Symphony no. 5 ‘New World’ Symphony, the Concerto Grosso no.12 in B minor by Handel, and the Scherzo from An Irish Symphony by Sir Hamilton Harty. The following day, a second performance was given in Rochdale at the Champness Hall. The remainder of that programme was largely similar: I understand that the Handel was swapped for Nicolai’s overture The Merry Wives of Windsor.  It is significant to note that Arthur Butterworth’s first concert as a trumpet player with the Hallé was at Rochdale’s Champness Hall on January 22 1955. (Rochdale Observer undated review, probably November 2 1964)

One major contemporary assessment was in The Times (October 31 1964) newspaper by their ‘special correspondent.’ He began by noting that the ‘enterprising committee’ had invited a ‘northern composer’ to write a new symphony.  After a brief resume of Arthur Butterworth’s career up to that point, he writes that it was a ‘happy coincidence’ that the first performance of the new symphony should be given by his former colleagues in the Hallé. He notes that this ‘personal relationship…showed itself in warm, sensitive playing.’   Musically, he points out that the composer tends towards harmonic rather than contrapuntal textures.  He majors on one of the most common critical assessments of Butterworth’s’ music – he is ‘refreshingly free from ‘isms’ and ‘alities’ and his music language is strongly tonal.’ It was to be this facet of the composer’s music that was to lead to him being ignored by the cognoscenti until relatively recently.  The one negative side to The Times review is an offhand suggestion that Butterworth’s ‘experience as an orchestral player has betrayed him into regurgitating much that he has played and heard.’  He thought that the work is quite clearly influenced by the two dedicatee’s Sibelius and Nielsen; however he felt that it is easy to determine other sources of inspiration, such as Gustav Holst and Shostakovich.  The writer’s last comment is to urge the composer to ‘develop a more individual style.’

J.H. Elliot writing in The Guardian (October 31 1964) believes that Butterworth’s Symphony reflects more the ‘spirit’ of Sibelius and Nielsen rather than their ‘traditional, but not conventional, musical outlook’.  He points up the formal principles of the three movement work with a ‘closing section in the first movement replacing the separate scherzo of classical practice’. Elliot admits that there are parts of this work that are so Sibelian, especially in the finale that ‘at moments they hesitate on the verge of actual quotation.’ Yet the critic is forgiving of this homage and writes that the symphony has ‘no little personality of its own and a heartening measure of expressive warmth.’ He highlights the ‘originality and fervour’ of the slow movement.  Like other critics, Elliot is highly complimentary of the scoring of this work, especially the ‘adroitness’ of the woodwind and brass parts; unfortunately he considers that the use of tubular bells ‘sound a little out of character, not to say rakish.’ He concludes his analysis by remarking that 'such well-knit and thoughtful music, even though it belongs to a tradition now in decline, or rather out of fashion, deserves a wider circulation.’
Michael Kennedy commenting in the Daily Telegraph (October 31 1964) believes that this present symphony is a ‘definite advance’ on the first, both in the ‘handling of the material and in a generally more mature approach.’ He makes a helpful suggestion that clarifies much criticism of this work: Sibelius and Nielsen have influenced Butterworth ‘not only musically but ethically in his belief that tonality is not a fully worked-out mine.’ He adds that it is ‘good to find a composer who realises that he must communicate with his audience, not blind them with science or perplex them with nonsense.’
Gerard Dempsey in the Daily Express (October 31 1964) noted that the orchestra ‘rose spontaneously to join in the applause’. He quoted the composer saying about the performance ‘It was exactly as I saw the work. It has been a wonderful night for me.’  Dempsey declared that this ‘deeply felt’ symphony was ‘cleanly scored, tense, urgent and distinctly short of melody.’
The Halifax Courier (October 31 1964) carried an impressive review of this concert.  The correspondent A.W. considered that the performance was ‘obviously prepared with much thought and care.’ An interesting aside suggests the composer had told him that this work was ‘like Sibelius’s own Fourth Symphony’ it is in the nature of a ‘protest against the incomprehensibilities of our present avant-garde in the arts.’  He sensed that ‘thematically and in playing time, it is a comparatively terse work’ and there is about it ‘a taut economy of material and expression, a close-knit texture that puts great emphasis on the values of tonality.’  Interestingly, he believed that the musical language of the Symphony is both ‘personal and modern’, which is a view that goes against the grain of other critics who insisted this work to be a little out of date.
Ernest Bradbury (Yorkshire Post October 31 1964) cites a long-running problem in British concert-life: ‘It is something of a disgrace that… [With the exception of Butterworth] no living composer is represented in the Bradford Subscription Concerts Centenary season.’ He then points out that Butterworth’s Symphony no.2 is only ‘brand new… in the historical sense’. He advocates that ‘musically it is not exactly new, in that it leans markedly on the examples of earlier composers.’ He believes that the work is ‘none the worse for that’ and submits that to ‘proclaim, nowadays, allegiance to two such composers, (Sibelius and Nielsen) constitutes an open act of defiance against the Establishment (more dreary than many people know) of the so-called avant-garde serialists’. He concludes that ‘they will be foolish critics who jump in immediately with the assembly-line opinion that Butterworth is therefore and necessarily, a mere unimportant reactionary.’
Bradbury states categorically that the new work ‘shows itself fascinatingly more interesting than the already admired Symphony No.1’.  He adduces three reasons for this opinion. Firstly that the musical argument utilises a ‘thematic compression’ which ‘argues a more logical and clear-sighted scheme than in the somewhat rhapsodic, atmospheric… earlier work’. Secondly there is the unusual form, which nods to Sibelius, and thirdly in the unconventional instrumentation which stems from Nielsen.  It is the ‘symphony’s underlying sense of unity, its intuitive purpose and its clearly directed cumulative progress’ that defines its success.  Finally, Bradbury detected some ‘grey, austere colour of the northern (English) landscape’ in this symphony as well as the ‘North’s hard, unyielding qualities’.
The Rochdale concert was reviewed by A.C.H. in the local paper (Rochdale Observer op. cit.) The author expressed delight at the practical aspects of the performance itself, noting that it is not often that ‘we get the composer of a work appearing on the platform when the Hallé Orchestra gives a concert [in the town]…’ He cited the ‘interesting spectacle’ of the composer congratulating the conductor, Sir Adrian Boult. Condescendingly, he writes that the ‘sight of this novelty did add a little something extra…the applause accorded was undoubtedly appreciative, as was the listening’ which was ‘attentive.’ The reviewer noted that there is ‘very little melodic interest’ in the two outer movements, with these being dominated by ‘percussive rhythms.’ He believed that the ‘lyrical’ central adagio ‘had a particular appeal of its own.’ A.C.H. reflects that this movement has ‘a poignancy which appears to spring from some deeply felt spiritual or emotional experience’.  Finally, he notes the ‘complex’ orchestration and suggests that the influences of Sibelius and Nielsen can be heard in the brass fanfares and the use of the timpani.

Arthur Butterworth has suggested to me that the Symphony no.2 as a whole might benefit from ‘some shrewd revision: especially the fearfully dissonant opening bars’. Having listened to this work a number of times (albeit on a less-than-perfect recording) I feel that little needs to be done to make this a valuable and ultimately successful addition to the British symphonic repertoire. In spite of the fact that Sibelius and Nielsen are clearly dual influences, this is not a parody or pastiche of those composers’ music. Arthur Butterworth has a powerful voice and has composed a profoundly individual work. Paul Conway has suggested to me that this is a ‘Moorland’ Symphony in all but name, with definite North Country roots in spite of its part-Scandinavian dedication. There is little warmth in this work, with the possible exception of the almost tragic ‘adagio’ however, even here the powerful emotion of these bars does not give respite to the listener. The Symphony is ultimately positive in its effect but this confidence is hard-won.
It is unfortunate that Arthur Butterworth is poorly represented on CD. In the present Arkiv Catalogue there are only seven discs devoted to his music (a number of other works appear in compilations).  In recent years, three of his symphonies have appeared on disc, with two versions of the ‘First’ being available.  A selection of orchestral and chamber music is also obtainable on Dutton Epoch. There is an elusive CD featuring some of Butterworth’s brass band works.  A number of private recordings of his music – often from radio broadcasts – circulate amongst enthusiasts.  At present the Symphony no.2 is only available in an unidentified broadcast performance by the BBC Scottish Orchestra.
The most important task at present must be to complete Arthur Butterworth’s cycle of symphonies on CD.

With grateful thanks to Arthur Butterworth for much help and encouragement in writing this article. Also to Paul Conway (by email, 21/08/14) for a number of extremely helpful insights into this Symphony.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Arnold Bax: review of first recording of Tintagel.

In 1929 Eugene Goossens and the New Symphony Orchestra made the first recording of Arnold Bax’s great tone-poem Tintagel. The critic W.R. Anderson, who was a mainstay of The Gramophone magazine, duly sang its praises, as well as commenting on the other piece included on the 2-disc set, Mediterranean. It is interesting to note his enthusiasm for future Bax recording projects. It was not until the 1970s that his began to become a reality. Unfortunately, Bax is not strong in the concert hall in our day. For example, Tintagel has not been performed at a Proms Concert since 1989. The Symphonic Variations was last heard at that venue in 1938.  The Goossens recording of Bax’s Tintagel is currently available on Dutton CDBP 9779.

To record Tintagel is bold and good [1]. The bigger Bax awaits full recognition, and recording will hasten it. [2] So will broadcasting, when Bax can get as much time in the programmes as his stature merits. Of Tintagel he has said that it is ‘only in the broadest sense programme music. Its intention is simply to offer a tonal impression of the castle-crowned cliff of Tintagel, and more especially of the long distances of the Atlantic as seen from the cliffs of Cornwall on a sunny but not windless summer day. The literary and traditional associations of the scene also enter into the scheme’ – those of Tristan, presumably, in particular. [3] This is an ideal brief composer’s note, putting the imagination into gear, so to speak, and leaving the music to carry us along. I am reminded a little of parts of Frank Bridge’s suite The Sea which Columbia of old recorded. [4] Bax is still more subtly powerful, I feel. This is one of the finest suggestions of old scenes and of nature’s sway that we have. I doubt if any record can get the size and scope of the seascape, but the quieter, broader, more intimate evocations are here, with a sureness of touch in the performance (so far as memory carries one) that deserve high praise. I reckon this some of the best recording of the day. Much is due to Goossens’ sympathy and insight. I hope that he will make many more records, especially of imaginative, impressionistic music. It should be added that the work is not ‘advanced’ or eccentric in any way.
Mediterranean was originally a piano piece. Bax scored it for the big concert of his works that his publishers, Murdochs, courageously gave in November 1922. The firm has kept faith with him, and few British composers now at work, of Bax’s quality, have had so many serious works printed (of late years, at any rate) as soon as written. This glowing, swaying music is not so much like conventional ‘sunny South’ poster-music made by foreigners. It is not of the calibre of Tintagel, but it fits snugly into the memory and gently titillates the musical palate.
May we have more Bax, please? – the Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, containing at lease on the loveliest movements written by any living composer, and The Garden of Fand, which ranks Bax with Delius. I believe the N.G.S. (National Gramophone Society) may do the quartet in G which I suggested a few years ago. [5] It is one of the most straightforward and open-hearted of his works. Meanwhile, support H.M.V.’s enterprise in doing Tintagel so splendidly.
The Gramophone February 1930.  (W.R. Anderson)

[1] HMV C1619/20: New Symphony Orchestra/Eugene Goossens: Arnold Bax: Tintagel and Mediterranean.
[2]Enthusiasts had to wait until 1943 for the first recording of a Bax Symphony by Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra.  There are now three complete cycles of the Symphonies available on CD: Bryden Thomson on Chandos, Vernon Handley on Chandos and David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos. Arkiv CD Website list of recordings currently available include Tintagel (20), Symphonic Variations (2), Mediterranean (8), The Garden of Fand (10) and String Quartet in G (2) 
[3] Hannam, William B, Arnold Bax & the Poetry of Tintagel, 2008.  Hannam reminds the reader that Arnold Bax and the pianist Harriet Cohen spent more than six weeks together at Tintagel during August and September, 1917. So this is a personal love-poem as well as the statements he made in the brief programme note.
[4] Columbia L1500/1: London Symphony Orchestra/Frank Bridge: Frank Bridge: The Sea

[5] The National Gramophone Society duly released a recording of the Strong Quartet No.1 in G major in 1930, played by the Marie Wilson String Quartet. Gramophone Society NGS153/5.