Friday, 31 May 2013

Havergal Brian: Violin Concerto in C major


The key question about Havergal Brian’s Violin Concerto in C major is whether it ought to be regarded as one of the great British concertos or whether it deserves its relative obscurity.
Now, the Brian aficionado will insist that this work is a masterpiece and deserves to be taken up by any number of leading soloists and orchestras. But what is the competition? I am sure that the readers do not need to be read a lecture on the repertoire, however it is worth a few moments just listing the some key British works in this genre.
Few would argue that the leading contenders are Edward Elgar and William Walton. However, it would be unfair to disregard E.J. Moeran and Benjamin Britten. Another name to be reckoned with is Alan Rawsthorne who composed two excellent examples of the genre which have been recorded by Naxos. The little appreciated work by Fred. Delius is actually rather good. And the offerings by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Arthur Somervell should not be ignored. In recent years there is the stunning Violin Concerto by Lionel Sainsbury. Yet, it is the Elgar and the Walton concerti that really count in the concert halls and on record. I have loved these two works since I was a teenager: both of them reach for the stars and touch the moon. And they have one distinct advantage. They are exposed to the public. They are heard at concerts and on the radio: scores are available for perusal by the musically literate. There are essays available to assist with analysis. And finally, biographies and letters of these composers help us find our way through these pages.

What are we to make of Havergal Brian’s Concerto? Firstly, this is not a new work – it has been around for 70 years. However it had to wait until 1969 before receiving its first performance by Ralph Holmes and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. It is currently available on a Naxos disc which is a re-release: it was originally issued on Marco Polo over 15 years ago.  
Secondly, the first performance of this piece (1969) was at a time when tonal music was at an all time low. In fact, it was likely to have been regarded as being passé by most learned critics at that time. A composer like Havergal Brian was not appreciated. The concerto, although receiving fine reviews, would not catch the eye of the cognoscenti. It would be left to the enthusiasts of Brian’s music to carry the torch. In the second decade of the 21st century we are less inclined to write-off a work because it does not conform to the latest ideas on musical composition. So the work has a good chance of being heard, enjoyed and appreciated without being condemned.
And lastly, in spite of the efforts of the Havergal Brian Society, I doubt that his name will ever rank with Walton and Elgar in the musical public’s perception.

However, after a number of hearings, I am convinced that this work will complete the triangle of key violin concertos produced in the 20th century in the United Kingdom. 
But first of all it is helpful to give a brief resume of the genesis of this great concerto. I rely heavily on the excellent programme notes written by Malcolm MacDonald for the Naxos recording. Brian had composed his Fourth Symphony in 1933 and decided to embark on the composition of a large scale work -the Violin Concerto. As a child, Brian had learnt to play the violin, so it was natural that he should turn to this particular form.
The draft score was completed by June 1934 but unfortunately it was lost on a train trip from Brighton to London Victoria – his briefcase was stolen or mislaid. Typically, he set to work straight away to recover lost ground. He did not try to reconstruct the work from memory but effectively created a new work using what themes and progressions he could recall from the original. The ‘new’ work was finished in the summer of 1935 and was initially called Violin Concerto No.2. It was subtitled ‘The Heroic’ which aptly summed up the effort Brian put into creating this masterpiece. Eventually the composer dropped the No.2 and the name and it became known as Violin Concerto in C major.

It is superfluous to describe the musical progress of this work. The programme notes give a detailed analysis of each movement and the listener can peruse this at leisure. Furthermore it is difficult to try to say what the work sounds like. All sorts of allusions spring to mind. And one of my criticisms of the Brian’s music is that it can sometimes be a little too eclectic. One minute we are reminded of Elgar, then the next Schoenberg and perhaps a few bars later Shostakovich. But at the end of the day the end result is typically Havergal Brian.
The work is in three movements – two ‘allegros’ sandwich a ‘passacaglia’. On my first hearing, I felt that the work seemed unbalanced, but with further hearings it fell into place for me. The equilibrium between the soloist and the orchestra, which can ruin many a good concerto, seems just about right.
One of Havergal Brian’s fingerprints is the tensions in his use of musical language. Much of this work is quite obviously tonal – yet, suddenly he pushes towards an atonality that would have made Ligetti proud! Some of his ‘tunes’ are diatonic and nod towards folk-music but others suggest the breakdown of the key signature. Some melodies could be whistled by the proverbial ‘butcher’s boy on his bicycle’ – others would seem to defy analysis. Often Brian’s harmonies are conventional sometimes they are harsh. Yet the balance is always right. He never loses the plot.

The greatness of this Violin Concerto lies in the well-contrived tension between competing elements and styles. There is an overt simplicity about much of this music that harks back to a more pastoral age, yet some of the more complex passages owe more to Berg and Schoenberg than to English folk song. Much of this concerto is intense, probing the very heart of music and perhaps life itself. This is expressly so in the Lento. Sometimes there is a serenity that lulls the listener into a false sense of security. Occasionally the music appears naïve – there is a passage in the last movement that is almost childish. Yet the balance remains; the equilibrium is never lost. The artistic integrity is never misplaced.

The final recommendation for this work is the blatantly obvious fact that Brian has used the great romantic concertos of the past as models. Of course he knew the Elgar and the Dvorak and the Tchaikovsky. He has not copied or even parodied any of these works. What he has done is learnt the lessons of their style and their balance and created a masterpiece in his own right.
Havergal Brian’s Violin Concerto is available on NAXOS 8.557775

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Harriet Cohen: The Complete Studio Recordings



HARRIET COHEN (1895 -1967)
The Complete Solo Studio Recordings
Harriet Cohen (piano)
APR Recordings APR7304

I will not be the first person to have fallen into the trap of regarding Harriet Cohen as being merely a ‘pendant’ of Sir Arnold Bax. To be fair, I first heard of her through my early ‘study’ of Bax back in the nineteen seventies.  The received wisdom suggested that for three decades, she ‘pursued a tempestuous affair with this composer’. When she suddenly discovered that she was not slated to become Lady Bax on the death of his wife, she had an ‘accident’ and cut her wrist whilst carrying a tray of glasses…
Certainly, her colourful personal life has distracted attention away from her achievements in the ‘recital room’ or recording studio. Stephen Siek, in the liner notes, suggests that Harriet ‘as a young woman was beguilingly beautiful, and [that] she rarely hesitated to advance her career through charm and even seduction.’  He mentions her liaisons ‘real or imagined’ with ‘men ranging from H.G. Wells to Ramsey MacDonald.’  Another issue that causes the biographer problems is Harriet’s tendency to fabricate –Siek notes that her autobiography is filled ‘with self-aggrandizing inaccuracies that must be carefully sifted from the truths that it also contains.’
The ‘gossip’ has partially obscured a pianist who was not only great but inspired. Her interpretation of Bach would have been sufficient to have established her reputation for all time. However, as this present collection of recordings proves, her achievement extends in many directions.
Out of interest, W.S. Meadmore quotes a story in the Gramophone Magazine from 1929: ‘When Busoni met Harriet Cohen he looked at her hands and said: "These are the smallest and worst, hands I have ever seen. It would be impossible to play the piano with them. You must give music up." Miss Cohen played to him. He was astonished. He could hardly credit that such hands could make such fine music.’

A few highlights of Harriet’s life and achievements may be of interest to those who have not come across her before.  Harriet Pearl Alice Cohen was born in Brixton, London on 2 December 1895 into a largely musical household. Her father, Joseph, was an amateur cellist and composer and her mother, Kathleen Irene, was an accomplished pianist.  After piano lessons with her mother, Harriet attended the Tobias Matthay Pianoforte School. Other pupils at that time included Myra Hess. In 1908, she gave her first recital – a Chopin Waltz at the Bechstein Hall! Shortly after this, she won an Ada Lewis Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music where she was one of the star pupils. Harriet won ‘a string of awards’ including the Sterndale Bennett, the Edward Nicholls and the Hine prizes.  She continued her studies with Felix Swinstead and Matthay himself. Whilst at the Academy she was introduced to Arnold Bax and became part of the ‘set’ that adored all things Russian in the wake of Diagalev’s ballet triumphs in London.

One of Harriet Cohen’s achievements was the ‘discovery’ of the significant vein of keyboard music by Tudor and other ‘early music’ composers. This included works by Orlando Gibbons, William Byrd and Henry Purcell.  Another important interest was of Spanish music: she gave the second performance of Manuel da Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and subsequently performed it many times.
However, her major achievement must be regarded as her exposition of J.S. Bach. The German critic Adolph Weissmann stated that ‘…so deeply has the spirit of the master entered into her that she has few, if any, equals as a Bach player’ and no less a person than Alfred Einstein insisted that ‘she is one of those chosen few who stand among the elect.’  The Times obituary writer notes that Harriet played Bach ‘with great musicianship, precision, buoyancy and an emotional tact which refuses ever to aim at effects outside a true Bach style.’
Over the years, Harriet gave the first performances of a number of important works by contemporary British composers. These included the Piano Concerto by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Bax’s Symphonic Variations. William Walton’s Sinfonia Concertante was introduced by her to France, Spain, Germany and Austria.  European composers including Ernst Bloch and Bela Bartok dedicated works to her. The Soviet composers Kabalevsky and Shostakovich provided her with new pieces: they are represented on these CDs.

Harriet officially retired from public life in 1960. Thereafter she devoted much of her time to the Harriet Cohen International Music Awards and the writing of her autobiography A Bundle of Time. She died on 13 November 1967.

It is not my intention to discuss every number on this superb three CD set – there are 58 tracks each deserving comment and analysis. However, I will mention a few highlights – at least from my perspective.
The lion’s share (32 tracks) of this recording is given over to the music of J.S. Bach. There are three main groupings here. Firstly, there is the important keyboard concerto – No.1 in D minor (BWV1052). This is presented here in two versions – one dating from 1924 and the other from 1946. Both are beautifully stated performances; however the later one is naturally clearer and casts more light on the contrapuntal working out of the piece.  Lewis Foreman has noted that Harriet was ‘celebrated in her day’ for performances of this work.  Once one makes the ‘mental leap’ of hearing this work on the piano as opposed to the clavier, it can be appreciated as a most enjoyable execution. I feel that this music is perfectly poised and ultimately cool in mood.
The ‘pioneering recordings’ of part of Book 1 of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier are critical to Harriet’s career. Apparently, Columbia proposed to issue the entire ‘48’ however, the project never got beyond the first nine. Her playing of these pieces is pretty near perfect. I accept that there have been many fine interpreters of these works – my current favourite is Andreas Schiff. However, Harriet’s commitment to these masterpieces of the keyboard art is impeccable and combines a superb technical approach to the music with a ‘lofty intellectual perception’, which is outstanding. It is only a pity that the set was never completed.
The last element of the Bach recordings is probably less-popular these days – the transcriptions. Perhaps the most famous transcriber of Bach’s music is Busoni; however many other composers turned their hand to this form of arrangement, including Franz Liszt, Max Reger and Sergei Rachmaninov. Harriet also contributed to this genre with a number of pieces including the lovely ‘Beloved Jesus, we are here’ (BWV731) and the stately ‘Sanctify us by thy Goodness’ from Cantata No.22.

It may seem a heresy to many readers when I admit that I am not a huge fan of Mozart’s and Brahms’ piano music.  Naturally, I accept that they are both masters of the keyboard, and concede that it is just the fact that I have not got to grips with their music.  However, I enjoyed the classical and ‘unsentimental’ rendering of the Mozart’s C major Sonata K330. The liner notes rightly admit to the somewhat ‘erratic’ tempos of the first movement – one might call it ‘eccentric.’ However, the slow movement is beautiful and the concluding rondo is perfectly paced.
I am convinced that other reviewers will extoll the virtues of Harriet’s Chopin and Brahms recordings. Certainly, I found her interpretation of the Études attractive, if not revelatory.
The Brahms Ballade in D minor is a ‘big’ work that was inspired by a grisly Scottish ballad tune, ‘Edward’.  Harriet’s performance is expansive and well-balanced. The closing bars of pianissimo are in perfect contrast to the macabre earlier pages.  The Intermezzo in B flat minor is a little lighter in mood, but is still introspective.

I noted above that Harriet took up Falla’s Nights: alas, there is no recording of this work available. However, this collection includes three pieces for solo piano from his pen.  I have always sworn by Alicia de Larrocha for my Spanish piano music; however, Harriet’s performances of ‘Andaluza’, ‘The Fisherman’s Tale’ and ‘The Miller’s Dance’ are beholden to no one. The balance between the fire, the passion and the sultry heat are all ‘present and correct’. These performances are amongst the highlights of a set of CDs full of highlights!

Stephen Siek notes that Harriet’s favourite ‘a cappella’ work was William Byrd’s five-voice mass:  Elizabethan music certainly appealed to her as can be heard in the five short pieces from Orlando Gibbons – ‘Ayre’, ‘Alman’, ‘Toy’, ‘Coranto’ and ‘Mr Sanders his Delight’. I have to admit that I prefer these pieces played on the piano than on the virginal - irrespective of musicological mores. There is a wistful and melancholic beauty about these timeless pieces that defies analysis. I do wish that she had recorded more music from this period. These pieces were taken from Margaret Glyn’s groundbreaking edition of the composer’s works, first published in 1922. Harriet also included Ralph Vaughan Williams heart-breaking Hymn Tune Prelude on [Gibbon’s] Song 13. I feel that this is one of the most moving pieces that RVW composed.

It is naturally good to have everything that Harriet recorded from the pen of Arnold Bax.  The powerful and demanding Paean (Passacaglia) certainly gives the lie to those critics who suggested that her small hands limited her technique. She brings a magic to the ‘Hill Tune’ and to ‘A Mountain Mood’, which is quite simply perfect. Harriet underscores both works’ largely impressionistic nature.  The Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex) which was dedicated to Princess Elizabeth on her 21st birthday is one of Bax’s lighter pieces. Like many of his late works, it has been considered as lacking in inspiration. However, for me it is a delight and manages to portray the idealised landscape, which seemingly inspired it.
One of the pleasures (for me) of the entire set of discs is the highly charged, romantic and very overblown – but gorgeous Cornish Rhapsody from the Gainsborough picture Love Story starring Margaret Lockwood. This performance was used on the film soundtrack.

The liner notes by Stephen Siek are excellent and constitute a major essay on Harriet Cohen’s recording career. It certainly bears careful study both before and after hearing the music. It would have been nice to have had dates for Messrs. Gibbons, Bax, and Bath et al: they were given for many of the other composers. There are some excellent photographs of Harriet of both the studio and the ‘snap’ variety. The CDs themselves are crammed full of music. I guess that they only just managed to fit in all this music on the three CDs.  They are superb values for money -the three discs are available for around £19.

I have never been a great enthusiast for ‘historical recordings.’ For one thing, I never know quite what to expect from the sound quality. Listeners are so used to a pristine reproduction of sound and look askance at any clicks or hiss. The present three CDs certainly have some hiss. Could it have been removed? I guess not. However, I was impressed by the general sound, the pitch seems to be ‘perfect’ and there is little evidence of where the 78 r.p.m. records would have needed to be ‘turned over.’
Yet to possess these three discs I am prepared to forgo my usual reticence to listen to historical recordings. In fact, I would go as far to say that I would give an arm and a leg to hear these tracks – complete with a bit of surface noise.
The reader may well divine that I am still half-in-love with Harriet some 40 years after first discovering her: that may well be true. However, I would challenge any person to listen to her performance of Debussy’ Clair de Lune and not be impressed, challenged and moved.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published
Track Listings Dates given are when piece was recorded.

CD1
J. S. BACH (1685-1750) Keyboard Concerto No 1 in D minor BWV1052 Orchestra /Sir Henry Wood (1924)
J. S. BACH The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I: Preludes & Fugues Nos. 1-9 BWV846 - BWV854 (1928)
BACH/RUMMEL Mortify us by thy grace, from Cantata No 22 (1928)
BACH/COHEN Beloved Jesus, we are here BWV731 (1928)
CD2
J. S. BACH Keyboard Concerto No 1 in D minor BWV1052 Philharmonia Orchestra/ Walter Susskind (1946)
J. S. BACH Prelude & Fugue No 4 BWV849 from WTC Book 1 (1947)
BACH/COHEN Sanctify us by thy goodness; Beloved Jesus, we are here BWV731; Up! Arouse thee! from Cantata No.155 (1935)
BACH/PETRI Fantasia (Praeludium) in C minor BWV921 (1935)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Piano Sonata No 10 in C major K330 (1932)
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849) Nocturne Op 15 No 1; Trois Nouvelles Études Nos. 1 & 3 (1943); Étude Op 25 No 7 (1928)
CD3
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Ballade in D minor Op 10 No 1; Intermezzo in B flat major Op 76 No 4 (1930)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Clair de lune, from the Suite bergamasque; La cathédrale engloutie, No 10 from Préludes Book I (1948)
Manuel DE FALLA (1876-1846) Andaluza, No 4 from Pièces espagnoles; The Fisherman’s Tale, from El Amor Brujo; The Miller’s Dance, from The Three-Cornered Hat (1943)
Dmitri KABALEVSKY (1904-1987) Sonatina in C major Op 13 No 1 (1943)
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Prelude in E flat minor Op 34 No 14 (1943)
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625) Ayre – Alman – Toy – Coranto – Mr Sanders His Delight (1947)
GIBBONS/Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Hymn Tune Prelude on Song 13 (1947)
Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Paean (1938); A Hill Tune (1942); A Mountain Mood –Them & Variations (1942) Arnold BAX Morning Song (Maytime in Sussex) Orchestra/ Dr Malcolm Sargent (1947) Arnold BAX ‘The Oliver Theme’ from the film Oliver Twist Philharmonia Orchestra/ Muir Mathieson (1948)
Hubert BATH  (1883-1945) ‘Cornish Rhapsody’ from the film Love Story London Symphony Orchestra/ Hubert Bath (1944)



Saturday, 25 May 2013

John Blackwood McEwen: Quartet for Strings No.7 in Eb


The Quartet for Strings No.7 in Eb was written in 1916: this was in the middle of the First World War. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that this work was subtitled 'Threnody'. It is a song of lamentation.
This quartet is written in four movements with three of them being slow. The work opens with a very dark and lugubrious Lento. However there are some moments of warmth in this movement. With increasing complexity it builds up to a climax which resolves itself into a restatement of the opening theme. 
This is a satisfying opening movement, showing the composer's genius to the full. The short second movement is full of string effects. The programme notes describe them as ‘late Elgarian arpeggios and motoric figures.’ All too soon we are in the ‘Allegro Molto. There is no doubt that this is the heart of the work. Here we have a stunning display of string writing.  Tunes seem to be passed ‘to and fro’ across this movement. Suddenly a gorgeous phrase is taken up, used and then seemingly cast aside. There is no doubt that this is a masterpiece of string writing. Not until Britten and Tippet do we reach such an understanding of how a string quartet works within British chamber music.
The last movement is a meditation the old Scottish Lament - Flowers of the Forest. This song was composed to remember the fallen at the battle of Flodden in 1513, and is a highly appropriate choice for a work written during the 'War to End all Wars.' Somehow McEwen manages to avoid any sense of the parochial or of pathos or sheer sentimentality. It is a beautiful and perfect ending to a splendid composition.
John Blackwood McEwen’ Quartet for Strings No.7 in Eb can be heard on Chandos CHAN9926.  

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Myra Hess - The Complete Solo and Concerto Studio Recordings


Accompaniments as listed below.
Recorded between 1928-1957
See end of review for track-listing
APR RECORDINGS 7504 

Myra Hess and I go back a long way. In the mid nineteen-sixties my late father bought a radiogram – complete with multi-stylus feature and auto-changer. I remember that at first he had only two records – one by the great Paul Robeson and the other was the ubiquitous ‘highlights’ from the Huddersfield Choral Society’s recording of Messiah. I had one - Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday EP - I still have it. A few days after this fine piece of furniture had arrived; a colleague of my father’s turned up at the house with a huge pile of 78 and 33 r.p.m. records. Most of them were dedicated to the crooning of Bing Crosby however one disc was totally out of class – it was Dame Myra Hess playing her transcription of ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’. I confess to having been positively bored by this music and preferred Cliff’s ‘Dancing Shoes’. In fact the name stuck due to having recently heard a family legend of how the German wartime RudolfHess leader had parachuted onto Eaglesham Moor just south of Glasgow close to where an old cousin lived ... I had presumed they were related.

However, years have flown: Myra Hess’ arrangement and recording of JJMD is, to me, one of the most precious things in the world. I have come to love her playing and to appreciate her massive achievement in the musical world. This present CD is a treasure trove for anyone who has fallen in love with this great pianist and I can guarantee that it will give hours of listening pleasure.

I imagine that most readers will have a brief knowledge of Myra’s life and times. However a few biographical notes will be of interest and allow the listener to put this impressive retrospective CD release into context.
Myra Hess was born in North London on 25 February 1890. She began her musical education at the Guildhall School of Music, then located at the John Carpenter Street site. She studied under the pianist Julian Pascal and Robert Orlando Morgan. In 1902 Myra won a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. There she studied with Tobias Matthay (Uncle Tobs) and became one of his most distinguished pupils. Other alumni from that era included York Bowen, Clifford Curzon, Moura Lympany and Harriet Cohen. In 1907 she played her debut concert with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Saint-Saëns’ Fourth Piano Concerto under Thomas Beecham at the Queen’s Hall.
Many commentators regard her first major success occurring in the Netherlands in 1912 when she played the Schumann Concerto in A minor with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Willem Mengelberg.
In January 1922 she made her American debut at the Aeolian Hall in New York. From that time until the outbreak of the Second World War she split her year into three parts – American tour, concerts in Holland and the UK and a two-month working holiday in the country.
Myra’s greatest public achievement was the National Gallery Concerts which commenced on 10 October 1939 and continued until 10 April 1946. Unlike some other composers and performers she turned down a lucrative and ‘safe’ American tour to do this important artistic work.
After struggling with illness, including arthritis and circulatory problems, Myra Hess gave her last public concert on 31 October 1961 at the Royal Festival Hall under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult. She played the Mozart Piano Concerto in A major. For the next four years she led a somewhat reclusive life and died on 25 November 1965.
Myra Hess was awarded a number of honours during her lifetime including a CBE (1936) and a DBE (1941).

What is contained in this five CD set? In fact, it is exactly what it says ‘on the tin’. I did a quick cross-check with the ‘Hess Discography’ prepared by F.F. Clough and G.J. Cuming and presented as an appendix to Denise Lassimonne’s book Myra Hess by her Friends (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1966). What has been issued here is the ‘complete commercial recordings of the solo and concerted piano music’. Chamber music has not been included. Unsurprisingly, there are many non-commercial recordings and BBC transcription discs and tapes of American broadcasts that form part of Myra’s recorded legacy.

There are so many works presented in this five-disc set, that I do not feel I can discuss each one in detail: I intend to give a brief overview of the corpus and consider a number of personal highlights. Myra Hess had a considerable repertoire. However as she matured, she tended to concentrate on the established classical and romantic repertoire. These are extensively represented in the set.

Three names permeate the track-listings – Bach, Brahms and Beethoven. There are three performances of the above mentioned ‘Jesu, joy’. Other examples from Bach’s pen include the Gigue from the French Suite No.5, a Prelude and Fugue in C sharp from Book 1 of the ‘48’ and the ‘Allegro’ from the Toccata in G major BWV916. Any of these pieces will convince the listener that she was an expert at playing this kind of music. I mention the late sonatas of Beethoven in a later paragraph; however I was taken by her charming and ultimately innocent account of ‘Für Elise’. Brahms is represented by a number of his Intermezzi, Waltzes and Capriccios.

Maurice Hinson suggests that Schubert’s Sonata in A major D.664 is one of the ‘technically easy’ examples in the set. It is also one of the most performed. I find Myra’s interpretation of this ‘easy’ work both illuminating and largely untroubled. The middle movement impressed me most. It is one of the few Schubert Sonata movements that I can hack/battle my way through. Her moving performance is a master-class. The finale is pure magic.

In the early days of her career Myra Hess would regularly play works from the turn of the twentieth century. However, as time went on she tended to drop these from her repertoire. Fortunately she recorded a number of them for the American Columbia label. Included here are Debussy’s Poissons d’orfrom Images Book 2, the ubiquitous La fille aux cheveux de lin and Minstrels from the Préudes. How could any pianist fail to want to play Ravel’s gorgeous Pavane pour une infante défunte? Other ‘modern’ numbers include a commanding version of Manuel de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance which sounds fresh after 84 years. American audiences must have been grateful for the inclusion of Charles Griffes The White Peacock in recital programmes. Interestingly this piece was inspired by William Sharp/Fiona McLeod’s poem – ‘Deep in the heart of a sea of white violets/Slowly, white as a snow-drift, moves the White Peacock.’ It is an impressionistic dream. This audience would also have loved her rendition of Edward MacDowell’s AD MDCXX from the once popular Sea Pieces Op.55. Here she manages to recreate the profoundly rolling sea that the Mayflower encountered as she headed across the Atlantic. It is a pity that there is no recording of one of her other favourites – Walton O’Donnell’s Before the Dawn. Perhaps one day someone will record it in her honour.

I was delighted that a number of British composers appear in the discography. Chief amongst these is the massive Sonata by Howard Ferguson which is a tragic reflection on the death of his piano teacher Harold Samuel. This is one of the misplaced masterpieces of British piano literature. Myra Hess explores the depth of pain and despair with great sympathy and clarity. The short, but compelling Bagatelles are also given here. Interestingly, she performed these works at the National Gallery Concerts, possibly in recognition of Howard Ferguson’s huge contribution to that project.

The short selection of pieces by Purcell arranged by Myra are beautifully stated and well suited to the piano. It would be a hard-hearted person who did not melt to her performance of the Nocturne No.4 in A major by the Irish composer John Field. Two treasures are the Album Leaf Op.22 and Elves Op.17 by Tobias Matthay, which are, I believe, the only available recordings. It is a fitting tribute by his pupil whom he regarded as his ‘prophetess’.

I felt that the Mozart Piano Concerto No.21 in C major K467 has stood the test of time. This recording was made during 1942. It is my favourite of the set of 27 and I was delighted to find that Myra excels herself. She manages to balance a truly dazzling performance with a studied, gentle touch and thoughtful phrasing. The slow movement was taken at a considerably slower pace than that for which this Elvira Madigan music is best known. Maybe this is too slow for some people. It certainly brings a greater emphasis on introspection – more than is normally encountered. Yet this was wartime: she strikes the mood just right. The Hallé Orchestra is conducted by Leslie Heward.

Other works will capture the imagination of listeners. I feel guilty foregoing comment on Schumann’sCarnaval, his Piano Concerto and the great Etudes symphoniques. This latter recording has been criticised as not being Myra at her best. The orchestra join forces for a performance of César Franck’sVariations symphoniques. This was one of Matthay’s warhorses and he apparently encouraged his pupils to ‘take it up’. Hess gives a splendid account of this work exploring the depth of feeling that Franck felt lay ‘under the surface of the melody’ (Hinson).

I will be accused of omitting to tell of triumphant performances of some Mendelssohn favourites, a number of beautiful Scarlatti sonatas, the gorgeous The Maiden and the Nightingale by Enrique Granados and a few pieces by Haydn, Dvorák, Palmgren and Chopin.

The two Beethoven Sonatas are at the heart of Hess’s achievement. Both works were issued in the early nineteen-fifties and therefore benefit from good sound quality. Howard Ferguson has written that the ‘recording which comes closest to capturing [her] beauty of tone, human warmth and deep musical understanding is … the Beethoven Sonata in E major, Op.109’. It is certainly a revelation. Her performances of the last three piano sonatas had earned her the greatest of respect, especially in Holland. Sir Paul Mason has written a moving little anecdote about these works: one evening his wife had asked Myra whether she understood what Beethoven was trying to say in his last works. Myra apparently reflected for a little and then replied, “No, but I think Beethoven would understand what I have been trying to do when I play them.’ Mason concluded by suggesting that he expected Beethoven had told her!

The liner-notes are excellent and provide an essential introductory essay on Myra Hess’s recording career. As noted in my review for the Harriet Cohen set in the same series, it would have been good to have had a few composer dates. It is fine not giving Beethoven, Brahms and Bach’s details but listeners may not have those of Scarlatti, Griffes, Matthay and MacDowell at their fingertips. There are some excellent ‘new’ photographs which I have not seen before. Also included is the well-known picture of her playing the piano complete with fur-coat in an unheated National Gallery.
I have outlined the musical content of these five CDs above. However I am amazed at just how many pieces have been included: there are more than 50 works. All five discs are just under/over 80 minutes of playing time. All this is priced at a ‘mere’ £25 (APR Website Price). The value of this collection cannot be faulted.
I have noted in the past that I am not a great enthusiast for ‘historical recordings’. If I am honest I usually prefer the latest version - assuming artistic integrity. I have never been too sure what to expect from re-mastered 78 r.p.m. discs and early vinyl. Should all the clicks and hiss have been removed? Does the technology exist to do this? Would we want to do it?
The present recordings all contain ‘imperfections’ that would not be tolerated by the fastidious listener of today. However, this is a small price to pay for such a stunning collection of music played by one of the most talented of British pianists.

Finally, Arthur Mendel wrote that he doubted ‘that any of Myra’s records will convey to future generations what we found unique in her’. The reason he gave for this contention was her ability to put the listener in direct contact with the music. She had difficulty in imagining an audience at the other end of a chain of electromechanical links – microphone, amplifier, tape, disc, stylus, amplifier, and loudspeaker. He insisted that Myra had to be challenged by an audience ‘physically present’ and that that the ‘moment she lived for was that in which she felt the triumph of achieving communication to people who at all other moments were by comparison strangers to her.’
 Listening to this music some sixty years after the last track was ‘laid down’ one can sense much of this ‘triumph of communication’ in spite of Arthur Mendel’s reservations. That is because these recordings - plus a few others - are the only record we have of such an inspired pianist.
With thanks to Music Web International where this review was first published.


Track-Listings
 
CD 1 The American Columbia Recordings, 1928–1931 [78:51]
J. S. BACH (1685-1750)/Myra HESS
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring [3.18]
J. S. BACH
Gigue from French Suite No 5 in G, BWV816 [3.20]
Prelude & Fugue in C sharp BWV848 from WTC I [3.21]
Allegro from Toccata in G major, BWV916 [1.58]
Giuseppe Domenico SCARLATTI (1685–1757)
Sonata in C minor L352 (Kk11) [1.58]
Sonata in C major L104 (Kk159) [1.40]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in A major D664, [18:23]
Franz SCHUBERT /Rudolph GANZ (1877-1972)
Ballet music from ‘Rosamunde’ [3.52]
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Bagatelle in B flat major Op.119 No. 11 [1.59]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Intermezzo in C major Op.119 No. 3 [1.43]
Capriccio in B minor Op.76 No. 2 [3.25]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Vogel als Prophet Op.82 No. 7 [3.35]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1843)
Song without Words Op.38 No. 6 ‘Duetto’ [2.43]
Song without Words Op. 67 No. 4 ‘Spinning Song’ [1.46]
Selim PALMGREN (1878-1951)
'Cradle song' from Preludes Op. 17 No. 9 [3.24]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Pavane pour une infante défunte [5.52]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Poissons d’or Images, Book 2 No. 3 [3.49]
La fille aux cheveux de lin Préludes I No. 8 [2.21]
Minstrels Préludes I No. 12 [2.07]
Charles GRIFFES (1884-1920)
The White Peacock Op.7 No.1 [4.34]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Ritual fire dance from ‘El amor brujo’ [3.42]

CD 2 The English Columbia Recordings, 1933 [80.43]
John FIELD (1782-1837)
Nocturne No 4 in A major [3.39]
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Nocturne in F sharp major Op. 15 No 2 [3.34]
Edward MACDOWELL (1860-1908)
AD MDCXX Op. 55 No 3 [2.51]
Antonin DVORÁK (1841-1904)
Slavonic Dance Op. 46 No 1 (duet with Hamilton Harty) [3.28]
The HMV 78-rpm recordings, 1937–1949
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695) /Myra HESS
Saraband; Minuet; Air [4.43]
Giuseppe Domenico SCARLATTI
Sonata in G major L387 (Kk14) [2.53]
J.S. BACH/Myra HESS
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring [3.31]
Adagio from BWV564 [4.29]
J.S. BACH
Prelude in D major BWV936 [2.29]
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Sonata in D major Hob XVI: 37 I Allegro con brio [4.25]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major K467 - Hallé Orchestra/Leslie Heward [28:53]
Johannes BRAHMS
Capriccio in B minor Op. 76 No. 2 [3.28]
Intermezzo in A flat major Op. 76 No. 3 [3.16]
Intermezzo in E flat major Op. 117 No. 1 [4.56]
Intermezzo in C major Op. 119 No. 3 [1.42]
Capriccio in D minor Op. 116 No. 7 [2.25]

CD 3 The HMV 78-rpm recordings, 1937–1949 (continued) [79:39]
Robert SCHUMANN
Carnaval Op. 9 25 [26:45]
Piano Concerto in A minor Op 54 - Orchestra [not identified]/Walter Goehr [31:48]
Cesar FRANCK (1822-1890)
Variations symphoniques - City Of Birmingham Orchestra/Basil Cameron [15.30]
Tobias MATTHAY (1858-1945)
Album Leaf Op.22 [3.27]
Elves Op.17 [2.08]

CD 4 The HMV 78-rpm recordings, 1937–1949 (continued) [78.07]
Howard FERGUSON (1908-1999)
Five Bagatelles Op.9 [7.19]
Piano Sonata in F minor Op.8 [21:48]
The HMV LPs 1952–1957
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN
Piano Sonata in E major Op. 109 [21:33] 
Piano Sonata in A flat major Op. 110 [20:00] 
Klavierstück in A minor ‘Für Elise’ WoO55 [3.15]
Bagatelle in E flat major Op.126 No 3 [3.05]
Felix MENDELSSOHN
Song without Words in A major Op. 102 No 5 [1.06]

CD 5 The HMV LPs, 1952–1957 (continued) [79.30]
Robert SCHUMANN
Piano Concerto in A minor Op.54 - Philharmonia Orchestra/Rudolf Schwarz [32:41]
Études symphoniques Op 13 [26:53]
Giuseppe Domenico SCARLATTI
Sonata in C minor L352 (Kk11) [3.24]
Sonata in G major L387 (Kk14) [2.47]
Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916)
'The Maiden and the Nightingale' from Goyescas [6.38]
Johannes BRAHMS
Waltz in A flat Op. 39 No. 15 [1.33]
Intermezzo in C major Op. 119 No. 3 [1.48]
J. S. BACH/Myra HESS
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring [3.42]

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Charles Williams: Rhythm on Rails.


Charles Williams contributed a number of works celebrating railways. I think of the score to the film Night Train to Munich (1940), the miniature orchestral piece Model Railway and the present Rhythm on Rails.  However, any listener imagining that this present piece has its genesis in a consideration of the Royal Scot speeding between London Euston and Glasgow Central, the Cornish Riviera travelling between Paddington and Penzance or the Talisman connecting Edinburgh with London Kings Cross, will be mistaken. This railway is ‘all-American’. My minds eye sees a heavy goods train crossing the Rockies rather than an express passenger train on British Rail.  It is Casey Jones that has his hand on the regulator.
The musical picture opens gently with steam locomotive sounds which more or less keep up for the duration. There is a little scrurrying tune that features as one of the ‘counter-melodies of the piece. Eventually this builds up to a bold theme delivered on the brass instruments. This has an intimation of a steam whistle. However there is another theme introduced which is a sweeping, romantic tune that acts as a foil to the ‘rhythm of the rails.’ Towards the half-way point the composer introduces a hard, bluesy whistle sound into the musical texture. This is a sinister wailing noise and suggests that the train is insisting everything gets out of its road. The music quickly moves to the coda and ends with a ‘sforzando’ chord, but not before the whistle is heard again – this time it is a little shunter and not a giant freight locomotive.
The work was composed circa 1956 and was likely to have been a contribution to the massive Chappell library of ‘mood music.’
There have been many recordings made of this piece over the year, including some by the composer. However the Hyperion British Light Music Classics., Volume 4, CDA67400 is possibly the best of the currently available versions.
It is often stated that Rhythm on Rails was used as the theme music to Morning Music on the BBC Home Service. However, although this tune was often heard, it was not actually the theme tune. 

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Some New Piano Pieces, 1929 style


One of the minor pleasures, but ultimately of frustration, is noting piano works mentioned in old musical journals. In the present instance, the February 1929 issue of The Dominant devotes a column to recently published piano music with special emphasis on what was useful for ‘educational’ purposes.  It is one of the unfortunate facts of programme makers and recitalists at present (2013) that they tend to avoid this ‘genre’. Presumably this is because they are deemed ‘too easy’ and do not show off the technical achievements of the maestro. A lot of fine music has been lost to concertgoers because of this conceit. For example, the music of Alec Rowley, Felix Swinstead, Harry Farjeon and Thomas Dunhill has disappeared from view. I guess that the assumption is that these composers wrote nothing but ‘educational’ music: pieces that are only of interest to Grade Fivers. Certainly, all of them wrote virtuosic music that deserves the occasional airing.
The present article outlines some dozen or so pieces that lie between what is now Grade 1 and Grade 7. I have not a clue what any of them sound like, save to say that they fascinate me. I guess that if I am honest it is the typically picturesque titles that impress me: as a youngster I would rather have played a piece of music called ‘Pirates Ahoy!’ than a Minuet in G.
Some of these pieces are studies –such as Eva Pain’s Three Rotation Studies – which we are assured are much better than the title suggests. There is apparently some subtle pedalling to engage with.  I wonder what T.A. White’s The Maze and Puck’s Dance sound like – seemingly exactly as their titles suggest.  I have heard of the composer C. Edgar Moy; however his Riverside Days are new to me. They are charming summer pictures expounding short verses by Rodney Bennett (father of the better known composer).  Another pedagogue is Dr. Kitson – famed for his text books on counterpoint and harmony. Seemingly his Two-Part Invention is a ‘tip-toe dance between the two hands’. Who was Sybil Fountain?  Certainly her Sea Horses have evocative titles such as ‘Flying Fish’ and ‘Coral’.  Two descriptive sets of pieces include Norman Peterkin’s Summer Eves, and Barnham Johnson’s Hard-Handed Men which explore the characteristics of six delightful characters from A Midsummer’s Night Dream, including Quince, Bottom, a Carpenter and a Weaver.
The better kent composer, Robin Milford has contributed a ‘senior piece’ with his slow paced Sir Nicholas’ Caper.  E. Markham Lee had issued an impressive sounding suite called Cliff and Tide-Rip, which is ‘entirely free of the ‘written for children’ feeling that spoils so much ‘educational’ music’. Two Pieces were offered by Roy Agnew –one gay, one smooth. Gordon Slater, who is probably best remembered in the organ loft, has published three pieces under the title Bluejacket – ‘Hornpipe’, ‘Sea Croon’ and ‘The Blue Peter’.  One piece that especially caught my eye was F.H. Shera’s Bridge End which seemingly has ‘enormous variations of tone, and pace, all logical and interesting to make.’
Somewhere in my collection of piano music, I know that I have a piece or two by Welton Hickin; however I cannot put my finger on them at the moment. In 1929 his contribution was Three Miniature Dances. At a higher grade level, Norman Peterkin’s Two Tunes for piano (one drowsy, one lively) and Thomas Wood’s Three Plain Tunes deserve mention.
Nancy Gifford concludes her brief review in The Dominant by noting that ‘what is good of all this output of new music ...is first and foremost [that] the pieces are not likely to be met with in examination lists.’ She concludes that they are ‘fresh, wholesome, connected with out of door life, or with literature, and are perfectly free from mawkish sentiment.’  
I guess that I may find one or two of these numbers in second hand music bookshops or charity shops. However, I imagine that most of them I will never play or hear. And I guess that this is a pity...
...hopefully some reader may have a scan of the above mentioned Cliff and Tide-Rip by E. Markham Lee.

Monday, 13 May 2013

British Composers: Proms 1930


It is always instructive to examine reviews of music from the past. There are two key issues here. Firstly, what was the contemporary estimation of a piece of music – especially if it was a first performance and secondly what has been the subsequent success or failure of the music in question. The author of this review from The Musical Mirror has singled out a few pieces of British music which were given at the 1930 Promenade Concerts held at the Queen’s Hall between 9 August and 4 October 1930.

On September 4 the evening opened with Lord Berners’ brilliant and exhilarating Fugue in C minor for Orchestra. Dame Ethel Smyth conduced two of her own compositions, Two Interlinked French Melodies for orchestra and the first concert performance of an Anacreontic Ode for baritone and orchestra, a skilful and picturesque setting of a drinking song, the spirit of which was not entirely caught by Mr. Herbert Heyner. Miss Beatrice Harrison spoilt her performance of Elgar’s Violoncello Concerto in E minor with a cloying and sentimental attitude. Notwithstanding Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the piece de résistance was Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande, which received a fine performance under the baton of the composer.
On September 11 Alan Bush conducted his Symphonic Impression Op.8, which was written a few years ago, while the composer was studying composition under John Ireland. This work is imbued with his master’s seriousness of outlook, together with a marked individuality and imaginative qualities.  On the other hand, one feels that the thematic material lacks spontaneity, and there are moments when the handling of the orchestra is inclined to be weak and immature.
Mr V. Hely-Hutchinson and Mr. Ernest Lush gave a brilliant performance of Arthur Bliss’ Concerto for Two Pianofortes, a clear cut and vigorous work, written with the usual facile cleverness that characterizes nine-tenths of the music of contemporary composers.
But what pigmies they all appear besides a composer of Elgar’s stature, a fact which duly impressed us on hearing Sir Henry Wood’s fine reading of Elgar’s Symphony No.1 in A flat, in which we have the highest flights of poetical imagination combined with an unsurpassed mastery of technique.
Delius was represented by the exquisite A Song Before Sunrise and the Dance Rhapsody No.1.
The programme on September 18 was interesting in that we were able to compare two distinct generations – William Wallace and Elgar on the the once hand and Arthur Bliss and Holst on the other.  It was purely a matter of artist versus artisans. The former were represented by William Wallace’s shamefully neglected symphonic poem, Villon, a work of genuine inspiration and fine workmanship, and Elgar’s symphonic poem Falstaff, which for beauty and content, consummate technical mastery, and ingenious musical characterisation towered above Bliss’ uninspired Serenade for baritone and orchestra and Holst’s clever but cold Concerto for two violins.  Not even the luscious and full-blooded playing of Miss Jelly d’Aranyi and Mme. Adila Fachiri could make this music thaw.
The Musical Mirror October 1930

Friday, 10 May 2013

Charles Williams: ‘Marianne’


Charles Williams (1893-1978) wrote a huge corpus of music for the concert platform and for the film industry. However, most of the latter is un-credited.  He is best known for the romantic tune The Dream of Olwen which was used in the 1948 film While I Live.  Equally successful was the Devil’s Galop which was the theme music to the successful radio show Dick Barton, Special Agent.  Other well-known tunes are the theme music to the long-running BBC Light Programme “Friday Night is Music Night”. For many years he was the conductor of the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra.
Marianne is a delicious little concert valse written in an easy going, but typically romantic style.  
After a sad  introduction which is followed immediately by a wistful tune for woodwind supported by strings, the main waltz tune sweeps into the picture. However the opening clarinet theme never quite leaves the scene and we are left with the distinct impression that Marianne is at one and the same time a ‘tom boy’ and a ‘deb.’  Like so much light music the listener is impressed by the formal integrity of this short work, the balance of the themes and the surprisingly subtle orchestration.
It is difficult to date the work; there is no record on COPAC. However the recording of this piece preserved on Guild’s Golden Age of Light Music was made in 1943. This was likely mood music that may have been composed in the nineteen thirties. Certainly Marianne has all the flair of thirties fashion.
‘Marianne’ can be heard on Guild Light Music GLCD 5107

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Philip Scowcroft: British Light Music: A personal gallery of 20th-century composers 2nd edition 2013


The first problem faced in reading or reviewing this book is defining ‘light’ music: I believe that no-one has come to a truly satisfactory answer.  A good characterisation is given on the web pages of the Light Music Society: - ‘Light Music bridges the gap between classical and popular music, although its boundaries are often blurred. It is music with an immediate appeal, music to entertain and to enjoy. It has a strong emphasis on melody…’ Light Music is seen as being ‘more accessible and enjoyable, less highbrow and less elitist’ than the main run of ‘classical music.’  The composers deemed to have contributed to this genre include Gilbert & Sullivan, the Strauss family, Sousa and more recently the music of Eric Coates, Leroy Anderson, Ernest Tomlinson and Robert Farnon.  Media typically includes orchestral, chamber (palm court) and instrumental.
A more succinct definition is that of Lyndon Jenkins who describes the genre as ‘original …pieces, often descriptive but in many cases simply three or four minutes of music with an arresting main theme and a contrasting middle section.’ David Ades, of Guild, writes that ‘it is generally agreed that it occupies a position between classical and popular music, yet its boundaries are often blurred’.
This would appear to be Philip Scowcroft’s view, however he adds the important caveat that [whilst] being easier to assimilate than most classical music, it should have an artistic, as well as an entertainment element about it, with due regard for attractive orchestration and craftsman-like construction.’ And finally it ought to be listened to – not relegated to background music.   
I would add that light music will often move the listener as much as more ‘serious’ pieces can.

Philip Scowcroft’s British Light Music will be of interest to a number of different groups of people. Firstly, reviewers and musicologists will be extremely grateful to this book when preparing essays or programme notes.  I have often turned to Scowcroft’s ‘Garlands’ on MusicWeb International when trying to get to grips with some obscure piece of music or a composer that is not even a name to me.
Secondly, I would like to think that listeners will find helpful and challenging information in these pages. I know that the current swathe of light music CDs issued by Hyperion, Guild and Marco Polo are popular. Hopefully, listeners will use this book to give them a better understanding of the life and works of many of these composers with information that goes beyond what is contained in the necessarily restricted sleeve notes.
Thirdly, and I hate to use this dumbed-down term, but it is an ‘ideas store’ (vide Tower Hamlets Library Service). Page after page of names and numbers all waiting to be discovered. A dozen lifetimes would be too little to explore all the composers and music that are listed in this book. But one has to start somewhere.

The fundamental structure of the volume is two major sections. The first is a generous selection of 31 composers who each have been given a miniature essay. The second part is a listing of the ‘best of the rest.’   The book opens with a preface by the author where he outlines the ‘methodology’ of the book as well as defining the concept of ‘light music.’ There follows a fascinating overview and appreciation by one of the greatest exponents of the genre, Ernest Tomlinson. At the conclusion of the volume there are two appendices. The first is a discography and the second is a brief bibliography of the genre. 

The composers that have been chosen for detailed examination represent a wide-ranging cross-section of the field.  Almost all the names are well-known to enthusiasts of the genre, but in most cases little is known about them.  Glancing down the list would suggest that only about five of these names have ‘full’ biographies dedicated to them – Eric Coates, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Edward German, Billy Mayerl and Roger Quilter. The rest are lucky if they have entries in the current edition of Grove.  I take an example at random: - Percy Fletcher.  Apart from Philip Scowcroft’s essay on MusicWeb International, there is a brief reference in Wikipedia, a post on my blog, a few YouTube videos and a number of CD adverts. Digging a little deeper, I found a very short sketch on the Light Music Society’s webpage and a good entry on the Robert Farnon Society webpage which was contributed by Philip Scowcroft.  There is a short note in Grove by Geoffrey Self. Apart from that the researcher would seem to be reduced to looking at CD liner notes, old journals and newspapers and programme books.  Interestingly there is also a short reference in the recently published 3rd edition of the British music Society’s British Composer Profiles.
Now Percy Fletcher (1879-1932) is in my opinion one of the doyens of the genre – certainly from the first half of the 20th century. He is recalled for some important brass band works such as Labour and Love (1913) and the Epic Symphony (1926).  His monumental Toccata is still played in cathedrals and churches. His piano works are a pleasure to play even if they are typically sub-Grieg!  His best-known piece is his Bal-Masque. This is a work that I regularly give an airing to on my piano. It was once a favourite of pier-head orchestras.
Scowcroft dedicates three pages (about 1200 words) to Percy Fletcher: it is the longest essay in print (if not in existence) concerning the composer. This approach is given to the thirty favoured names.  I was delighted to see essays on Hubert Bath, Ronald Binge, Leighton Lucas, Walton O’Donnell and Frederick Rosse, although each reader will have their own favourites or desideratum.

The second major section of this book is a list of ‘short’ entries for more than 300 composers not explored in the essays. Naturally, a selection like this is going to be subjective. It is pointless to argue that this or that composer has not been included. From my study of these entries I would make three observations. Firstly, there is considerable depth to these names. Just glancing at the letter ‘I’ there are three composers mentioned. The first is John Ireland (1879-1962): he is not necessarily everybody’s idea of a light music composer, however Scowcroft does suggest that ‘Sea Fever’, ‘The Holy Boy’, the ‘Overlanders’ and the ‘Epic March’ fall into this category. Ernest Irving (1877-1953) certainly deserves his place in these listings, even if only for his music to the film Whiskey Galore.  I have never heard of Herbert Ivey; however the author notes that his Glimpses of London Suite and ‘Four Little Dances’ are worthy numbers. A glance at COPAC suggests that there are more from where these come from too.
Secondly, there is huge stylistic disparity in the works of many of these composers. I accept that Malcolm Arnold’s English Dances and Alan Rawsthorne’s Street Corner Overture or his ballet score to Madame Chrysantheme are definable as ‘light’ music. These works have a musical structure, subtlety and inventiveness that seem a million miles away from the pop-saturated utterances of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Yet, all three composers are listed here. But all this is a matter of opinion. There are no hard and fast rules when defining ‘light music.’
I do feel that a long article about Robert Farnon would have been appropriate in the first section. He died in 2005 and is not still ‘active’ as the Preface suggests. Farnon does have his entry in the ‘shorts’ section.
And thirdly, I guess that Philip Scowcroft has utilised extensively his excellent ‘Garlands’ published on MusicWeb International to provide much of the information in these pages. It is good to have them printed in ‘hard copy.’
One important feature of this edition is 30 photographs of composers and venues. It is always good to put a face to the music. I guess I could have spotted a ‘mug shot’ of Eric Coates but not Vivian Ellis, Montague Phillips or Frederic Curzon. A great bonus.

The Discography is disappointing. No attempt has been made to update these listings since the first edition of the book in 1997. Since then, there has been a flood of CD releases made available for interested listeners. Key amongst these must the Guild Light Music series. This is a massive library of re-mastered recordings that first began appearing in 2004. Since then there have been more than a hundred well-filled CDs issued. These contain a huge variety of light music – from the early days of Edward German and Edward Elgar (who does not get an essay or entry in this book) through to the nineteen-sixties. I accept that many of the composers are American or European, but a large number are British and have entries in Philip Scowcroft’s book. I can understand that the author did not want to give a complete listing of these CD with an excess of 2000 tracks: I do feel that it would have been helpful to have mentioned them, along with a hyperlink.  Another important release was the four CDs of the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra on the Dutton Epoch label. Finally, many of the recordings noted in the text are now only available as MP3s or from second-hand record shops.  

The ‘select’ bibliography has been updated to include Robert and Nicola Hyman’s fine book about the Pump Room Orchestra which was published in 2011 and Geoffrey Self’s Light Music in Britain from 1870, for example. Yet, many important books in the field of light music have been omitted. I would have expected to see references to Kenneth Young’s important study of Music Great Days in the Spas and Watering Places (1968), Ernest Irving’s Cue for Music (1959) Alan Hyman’s Sullivan and his Satellites, Peter Dickinson’s essential study of Billy Mayerl (1999) and Mike Carey’s Sailing By: The Ronald Binge Story.
I note the short list of Light Music Societies. I do wonder about giving ‘GPO’ addresses as opposed to web addresses. In the lifetime of this present edition these are likely to go out of date. Incidentally, anyone trying use the information given to contact the Eric Coates Society will do well to put a full stop between the forename and surname of the secretary in the email address!

The book, on the whole is well-presented. It feels nice and has an attractive soft cover. The font size is excellent and the quality of the print good.  The book achieves what it set out to do- it provides detailed essays on 30 composers and short notes on 300. The cost of the book is £15.00, however if it is purchased from MusicWeb International before the end of April 2013 it is priced £10. As for value for money, it seems to me to be good. There are 180 pages full of useful and fascinating information.  If you are a light music fan, then I suggest that this is a book that sits close to you chair by the CD player. It will be a constant reference guide as you make your way through some of the many tracks now available on CD. However, the listener may be occasionally frustrated when a name he expects in the listings is not there.

Finally I mentioned that this book is a book of ‘ideas’. Perhaps I ought to have said of ‘wildest dreams’. Even the briefest of flick-throughs reveal names of compositions that excite, delight and will ultimately frustrate the listener if they cannot get their hands on a copy of the music. At random I suggest that Montague Ewing’s Suite: Guy Fawkes Night, Christopher Le Fleming’s London River Suite and Frank Tapp’s English Landmarks Suite are all desideratum that deserve rediscovery. There are thousands more such pieces mentioned in Philip Scowcroft’s British Light Music.  Happy hunting!


British Light Music: A personal gallery of 20th-century composers 2013 2nd edition By Philip L. Scowcroft, Dance Books,  ISBN: 9781852731632,  £15.00 Soft Cover

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

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Harry Farjeon; ‘Tarantella’ for piano solo - a mystery.


One of the best-known pieces (if such is not an exaggeration) of Harry Farjeon’s (1878-1958) music is the ‘Tarantella’ for piano. This was made popular by the great Eileen Joyce in the late nineteen-thirties. However, there is a problem. The work does not appear to feature in the Farjeon’s 'catalogue'. I cannot find reference to it on WorldCat, the Royal Academy of Music or the British Library catalogues. Christopher Howell has suggested that ‘it does not correspond to any known piece.’

There are few references to the work in the musical press, however there is a short review of the Parlophone record release in The British Musician, November 1937:- ‘Cyril Scott’s ‘Lotus Land’ and ‘Danse Negre’ (popular pieces a quarter of a century back), along with a tarantella by Harry Farjeon, are played by Eileen Joyce with delightful dexterity of touch and brilliance of tone, the latter in ‘Lotus Land’ softening properly into the richly sensuous.  The Farjeon seems more of a descriptive piece, more even a dramatic one, than a tarantella, it is all very entertaining’.  Certainly the piece does not exemplify a typical ‘Tarantella’ with the rapid 6/8 figuration.
The Musical Times (May 1937) notes that it had a first performance on the ‘wireless’ and suggested that the work had ‘a welcome, sly, sentimental move or two, in fin-de-la-guerre phraseology.’
Listening to this music suggests the style of Bartok and Prokofiev rather than the ‘gentle, but civilised inventiveness’ attributed by Philip Scowcroft to Farjeon’s style.  There is little music recorded by Farjeon to compare the ‘Tarantella’ with, however many of his piano scores suggest a far more conservative style suited to ‘gifted amateurs’ than the present piece would suggest.  Christopher Howell has noted that by the 1930s Farjeon had begun to show ‘an inclination towards mild modernism.’ The present work exemplifies – almost parodies -this genre.

It is probable that this piece was especially composed for Eileen Joyce. It may have been misattributed, but that is doubtful as she appeared to play it at recitals on a regular basis.  The fact is that she counted Farjeon as amongst her closest of friends, so it is likely to have been given to her as a keepsake, perhaps to act as a pendant to the Shostakovich’s Three Fantastic Dances (1922) which were in her repertoire at around this time.

The National Library of Australia has a listing of the Parlophone recording made by Joyce on 14 May 1937 in London. It was released as E11391.

Fortunately this 78 rpm record has been re-mastered and released as a part of the superlative boxed set from APR Records – ‘Eileen Joyce: The Complete Parlophone and Columbia Solo Recordings 1933-1945’.  The ‘Tarantella’ is available on YouTube