Friday, 29 May 2015

Leoncavallo's Error

Readers of this blog may be surprised that I do listen to music other than works by British composers. I was watching Ruggero Leoncavallo’s great opera Pagliacci on YouTube the other day. It is the first opera I ever heard and I have loved it ever since. I recalled reading an anecdote allegedly related by the composer about a ‘social gaffe’ he made. It deserves retelling here.
Ruggero Leoncavallo’s (1857-1919) Pagliacci was first heard at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on 21 May 1892, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.  Its British premiere was at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London on 19 May 1893. Perhaps I will dig out some contemporary reviews: all I know is that Dame Nellie Melba played Nedda and Fernando de Lucia played Canio.

Composers are not always keen to tell stories at their own expense or at that of their compositions, but the following related by Ruggero Leoncavallo, the prominent young composer of the modern Italian school, he deemed too good to keep, though at the time it put him in the light of a first-class plagiarist.
Being one day in the town of Forli, he heard that his opera Pagliacci, that work which has given him so much fame, was to be produced, and he decided to hear it incognito. That the rising young composer was in town, was not generally known.
At the opera his seat was beside a bright-eyed and enthusiastic young lady, who, when she saw the composer did not join in the general applause, but remained quiet, turned to him with the question, “Why do you not applaud? Does it not suit you?”
The composer, much amused, replied: “No, on the contrary, it displeases me. It is the work of a mere beginner, not to call him anything worse.”
“Then you are ignorant of music,” she said.
“Oh, no,” replied the composer.
Then he proceeded to enlighten her on the subject, proving the music worthless and entirely without originality.
“See,” said he, “this motive is,” and he hummed lightly a short melody; “this aria is stolen from Bizet, and that is from Beethoven.” In short, he tore the whole opera into pieces.
His neighbour sat in silence, but with an air of pity on her countenance. At the close, she turned to him and said: “Is what you have said to me your honest opinion?”
“Entirely so,” was the reply.
“Good,” said she, and with a malicious gleam in her eyes left the theatre.

Next morning, glancing over the paper, his eye fell upon the heading, ‘Leoncavallo on his Pagliacci’ and reading further, was somewhat startled to find the conversation of the evening before fully reported and credited to the proper source. He had, unfortunately, played his little joke on a lady reporter, who had proved too smart for him.
Leoncavallo swore off from making disparaging remarks concerning his own works to vivacious young ladies, no matter how handsome or how enthusiastic they might be.
La commedia è finita! – "The comedy is finished!"

Anecdotes of Great Musicians, W Francis Gates Weekes & Co., London, 1896

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

George Frideric Handel: Suites for Harpsichord, Volume 3

George Frideric Handel’s (1685-1759) keyboard music suffers neglect for two major reasons. Firstly, he is largely overshadowed by his contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach whose vast catalogue of keyboard music is widely performed and recorded. It is regarded as essential study for all professional and aspiring pianists and harpsichordists. Furthermore, Bach is considered to have substantial intellectual and transcendental content denied to Handel. At present, the Arkiv catalogues lists nearly ten times the number of CDs devoted to Bach’s keyboard works as to Handel’s. Some of Handel’s Suites have only two currently available recordings. And secondly, Handel’s other music has ‘overshadowed’ his contribution to the keyboard repertoire. Listeners are more likely to turn to his Water and Firework Music, Messiah and even the operas rather than devote time to his harpsichord works.

Handel wrote a great deal for the harpsichord including around 25 suites and many smaller standalone pieces such as lessons, chaconnes, fugues and fantasias. Musicologists divide the Suites into a number of collections. Firstly there are the ‘Eight Great Suites’ (HWV 426-33) published in 1720. There were followed some thirteen years later by another six which are dubbed ‘The Second Collection’ (1733). There are also many other individual suites.  The dating of all these works is fraught with difficulties. Rowland suggests that some were composed before Handel left Germany bound for Italy in 1707. The remainder were ‘probably’ written in England after he settled there in 1712. The present CD includes the last examples of the genre (Suite in D minor, HWV 447 and the Suite in G minor, HWV 452) that Handel wrote around 1739 for Princess Louise, the daughter of King George II. 

The Suites themselves are different to Bach’s examples. They are designed with less concern for perpetuating the historic ‘dance’ movements. Although Handel made extensive use of these, he also introduced chaconnes, variations and fugues into his suites. The liner notes point out that the one work the Suite in F (HWV 427), not on this CD; actually contain none of the traditional movements. Another feature of these suites is the duration. They range from Suite in G minor, HWV 451 at just under six minutes to the massive Suite in D minor, HWV 449 which is just shy of 24 minutes.
I do not intend to major on each individual Suite. The present selection is made from both the major collections as well as the miscellaneous group. The second disc concludes with the massive Chaconne and 62 variations from Suite in G major, HWV 442. The CD is worth buying for this alone.
These suites are played on a two-manual French harpsichord ‘after Goermans’ of Paris (1750) built by Andrew Wooderson in 2005. The sound of this instrument is simply stunning: it has been superbly recorded.

Gilbert Rowland made his debut at Fenton House, Hampstead in 1970 and first appeared at the Wigmore Hall in 1973. He has given many recitals and broadcasts over the years which have established his reputation as one of the leading harpsichordists in the United Kingdom. His recordings include music by Soler, Scarlatti and Rameau. 
The liner notes, written by Rowland are most helpful. After a short overview of the genre, he gives a succinct description of each of the suites. These notes are also printed in French and German. There is a colour copy of Philippe Mercier’s (1689-1760) well-known painting of the composer.
I have not heard the first two volumes of this cycle of Suites. However, based on this present two CD I can only imagine that they will be equally successful.  

Track Listing:
Disc A
Suite in A minor, HWV 426
Suite in D minor, HWV 447
Suite in G minor, HWV 452
Suite in B flat major, HWV 440
Suite in D minor, HWV 448
Disc B
Suite in D minor, HWV 449
Suite in G minor, HWV 453
Suite in C minor, HWV 445
Suite in G minor, HWV 451
Suite in G major, HWV 442
Gilbert Rowland (harpsichord)
Rec. Holy Trinity Church, Weston, Hertfordshire, 21-24 July 2014
DIVINE ART dda21225
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Noël Tredinnick: Brief Encounter for organ

Many years ago I heard the first broadcast performance of Noël Tredinnick’s Brief Encounter for organ on Radio Three. It was around the time that I had first seen the eponymous film starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, so I guess that I made connections that defined for me the inherently romantic nature of this vibrant work.
It is possible to identify the date of the Radio Three broadcast as 4 October 1976. It was a recording of music played at the Royal College of Organists. Other works heard in this recital included C.P.E. Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, Seth Bingham’s Fantasy [probably the Fantasy in C major, 1949], John Joubert’s Prelude on the tune ‘Picardy’ (from Six Short Preludes on English Hymn Tunes, Op. 125), Liszt’s Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Arthur Wills’ Elevation and two works by Herbert Howells: ‘A Chosen Tune’ and Paean.  However, this may well have been a compilation of recordings. The Musical Times refers to the recital given on 29 September 1976 RCO Dinner where Thalben-Ball seemingly included music by ‘[Hubert] Parry, Howells, Noel Tredinnick, John Joubert and Richard Popplewell, with two compositions of his own, ‘Toccata Beorma’ and ‘Poema’’. The two programmes do not appear to tie up.

Tredinnick has indicated (quoted liner notes of Priory PRCD817) that the title of the work suggests the manner in which ‘chords and melodic fragments from varying backgrounds meet together and entwine only for a brief moment’.  It is a particularly buoyant piece that is full of energy and irregular rhythms. This is colourful music that includes jazz-like references without becoming a parody. There is nothing particularly modern about this work, and would certainly have been approachable by most listeners at the time –even in the context of a church service. However it is the sheer vitality of the work that makes it memorable.
The work was dedicated to George Thalben-Ball (1896-1987) ‘in admiration’. Thalben Ball himself recorded Brief Encounter on an old Vista album (VPS1046) which was released in 1977. This was played on the organ of All Souls, Langham Place and included music by John Cook, Paul Creston and Julius Reubke magnificent Sonata on Psalm 94.
I cannot find any reference to the sheet music for this work having been published.

There is a performance of Noël Tredinnick’s Brief Encounter on YouTube (skip add) Gerald Brooks is playing the organ [Bishop (1824), Bishop & Starr (c.1864), Hunter (1913), Henry Willis (1951) and Harrison and Harrison (1976)] in All Souls Langham Place. It is taken from the Priory CD (PRCD817) ‘Fantasia’ which was released in 2004. It includes music by Ives, Mendelssohn, Hollins, Bowen, Easthope Martin, Bliss, Eric Coates, Quentin MacLean, Lemare and Pierre Cholley.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

A Pen Sketch of Frederic Delius at Grez-Sur-Loing, Part 2

Margaret Black's Delius at Home, Part 2

The House
Now we will enter Delius' home, through the big hall, up a wide, winding staircase made of oak, to his bedroom, which was once the salon, and has the double folding doors of the period of powder and patches, still painted gold and blue, as the fashion was of that day. These doors were very wide and high to allow the enormous hooped skirts and high head dresses of the belles of Versailles to pass through when they came to call on the marquis, and they are to be seen in many old châteaux all over France.
To the right is a door leading to a bath-room and dressing-room. To the left a smaller door and a passage, on one side two bedrooms, one being occupied by his valet, on the other side windows overlooking the courtyard and gardens, and at the end of this passage is Delius' music room. 

The Music Room
This is a large, sunny room, with the same parquet floor (all the rooms have these, except one or two in the right wing of the château used as studios). 
In here are two pianos, music stands, shelves full of books and manuscripts, a Persian rug and some tapestries. On the walls hang some paintings by his wife, whose first picture was exhibited in the Paris Salon when she was only seventeen. There are three studios filled with interesting studies, most of which have been “hung,” or whatever the equivalent is in France, for the coveted little “number disc” all artists hope to see one day on their pictures hangs on them.
My aunt speaks five languages perfectly, and is therefore of the greatest help to my uncle, for whom during his temporary illness she undertakes his entire correspondence, by no means a small matter.
Leading out of the music room are two or three other rooms, forming the short left wing of the house, which is built in the shape of an “L,” with an upright piece on the end of the toe. These unknown rooms I always meant to explore, but never did. Up above are store rooms, filled with apples and tomatoes arranged by Madame Gréppié like soldiers on parade. She is a marvellous French cook, and gives as much thought and care to the cooking of a potato as the French Government did to the stabilisation of the franc! Cooking she regards as a career.

Near these store rooms is a lovely studio, very sunny, with an enormous picture on an easel of a girl with long golden hair; this model used to come from Paris to sit for my aunt, who at that time especially was working very seriously with her painting. From this studio you can walk on to a flat roof, from which there is a wonderful view of the countryside.
At the foot of the staircase in this wing is another group of rooms, two or three I think, which are always kept ready for friends of my uncle; one I believe is a famous pianist, another a noted composer [2]. While I was there a very well known 'cellist [3] came for a flying visit prior to an important concert he was giving in Berlin. In the afternoon sometimes he would play for us. Over in the main wing, at the top of the main staircase, was my room, with two long French windows, and when I looked out I could see the lovely old Church of Grez. It was here I think my uncle and aunt were married [4]. It has an old turreted tower with a clock in it, and this forms a medieval gateway into the village of Grez; it is a few minutes’ walk from the château.  
Leading from my room was a sort of ante-room, with wardrobes and linen closets, etc., a small passage and then an enormous studio and store room, for lavender and rose leaves, for pot-pourri and various other things, leading out of this another huge room used as a studio. I can only give some idea of the size of these two rooms especially by likening them to those we use in England for gymnasiums and concerts.
My uncle spends most of his time in the garden, where his valet and my aunt read to him in turn, his eyesight being rather bad. Here one can often meet well-known people in the literary and musical world, whose visits and music give him great pleasure.

Delius Himself
Perhaps I ought to give some description of Delius himself.
He is tall and slender with a very thin face and aquiline features, which gives him the appearance of a Jesuit priest. A bust showing this resemblance very strongly was exhibited recently in England. But undoubtedly his most striking feature is his hands, very white in spite of his long hours out of doors, with long, tapering fingers and filbert nails, slender and fragile looking, and yet he has climbed all over the mountains in Norway, where he had a house, and as a boy I have been told he was a great cricketer.
I heard a very funny story about him when he was in Norway. A friend of his who had just arrived at an inn heard the landlord talking. “The tall young Englishman has again arrived. He climbs every mountain, and he always runs. Never have I seen such energy.” So he knew that my uncle was somewhere in the neighbourhood!

The Village of Grez
I could write pages about the lovely little village of Grez, beloved by the great Robert Louis Stevenson, [5] surrounded by the forest of Fontainebleau. The horrors it endured in the Great War, when the cobbled streets were packed with refugees, and my uncle and aunt had to dig all their wine in a large hole in the lawn and leave the château, spending two days and two nights in a cattle truck. 
The roads were impossible, being a solid jam of peasants pushing their little carts, packed with their family and household goods. A few kilometres away is the town of Fontainebleau; the road leading to it was made by the great Napoleon, who lived at the wonderful château there, which is almost more beautiful than Versailles.
So I will conclude with the hope that lovers of his music will realise that he is not living “neglected and abandoned in ugly surroundings,” but amid great beauty and with all that care and attention can give him.

Notes:
[2] Probably Percy Grainger (1882-1961) and Henry Balfour Gardiner (1877-1950) who both visited Grez-sur-Loing at ‘the end of summer’ 1927. (Carley, Lionel, Delius: A Life in Letters, Volume 2, Gower Publishing, 1988)
[3] I cannot identify who the cellist was. The conductor and composer Oscar Fried (1871-1941) did visit around this time. He was en-route to Russia for a musical engagement.
[4] Eric Fenby (Delius Society Journal October 1984) pointed out that Delius was in fact married at Grez-sur-Loing town hall and not at the church.
[5] Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) Scottish novelist, poet, essayist and travel writer. In 1875 Stevenson journeyed to Paris where he discovered the Forest of Fontainebleau. He settled in the small town of Barbizon that same year, at the Siron Inn (now the Bas Breau Hotel). In the following year, Stevenson journeyed on foot from a second visit to Barbizon to Grez-sur-Loing to meet his cousin Bob, who was staying at the Chevillon Hotel (still extant). In Grez Stevenson met Fanny Osbourne (1840-1914), who would later become his wife. 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

A Pen Sketch of Frederic Delisu at Grez-Sur-Loing, Part 1

I recently found Margaret ‘Peggy’ Black’s [1] article about ‘Delius at Home’ [2] in a bound volume of Music of all Nations [p.118-119] which I purchased in the second-hand bookshop. This series, which was edited by ‘Sir Henry Wood’ [3] was published during the nineteen twenties and thirties, however, my copy is not dated.  I located an advert in the Yorkshire Evening Post (3 November 1927) for ‘Part One’ of this fortnightly publication. I understand that there were 30 parts issued. So the final edition was probably in the first or second week of December 1928. So a good surmise would be that Margaret Black’s article appeared around mid-November of that year.
Clare Delius in her book [4] has stated that her daughter, Margaret, first visited Grez-sur-Loing in in 1927. In 1920 when Claire was taking Margaret to her first boarding school, Delius pressed an invitation on her to visit Grez: ‘Seven years were to intervene before she could accept this invitation.’
This article was re-printed in the Delius Society Journal, April 1984. However, I have retained the author’s orthography and paragraph headings, as well as providing some notes.

Notes on Introduction:
[1] Margaret Black was Delius’ niece. Her mother, Clare Black, née Clara Edith Delius (1866-1954) was the composer’s favourite sister. In 1889 she married J.W.A. Black. Margaret lived until October 1978.
[2] Delius moved to Grez in 1897 and died there in 1934.
[3] It is highly likely that Wood’s name was simply an advertising ploy and that the considerable amount of work the publication entailed was done by a team of editors. Each fortnightly part included piano works, songs and essays.
[4] Delius, Clare, Frederic Delius: Memories of my Brother (London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson, 1933)

Delius at Home by Margaret Black
True enough is the saying, “The more brilliant the genius, the more modest the man." It is this modesty, this dislike of publicity which has made Delius utterly ignore the articles published frequently in the papers, under such headings as “Genius living in obscurity and straitened circumstances”, “Famous composer neglected and unacknowledged in a foreign country”.
All this is very romantic, and satisfies the general idea of the public in connection with the arts, and that is, that all great poets, composers and artists labour on under the most adverse conditions until their death, when their brilliance is acknowledged by a world stricken with remorse.
Their poems are read and quoted in all the papers, their operas move audiences to ecstasies and tears, and their pictures draw endless crowds dumb with admiration, or loquacious in their praise, because death always opens the floodgates of belated and exaggerated admiration.

Genius and Publicity
It is this very publicity that genius shuns, and which my uncle, contrary to the general rule, encountered early in his career, and which pleases him as little today as it did then. By my expression, “His very publicity” I do not mean the interest of the public in their works, but rather the curiosity of the public in their lives. What they say and think, and eat and drink, where and how they live, and all their little idiosyncrasies are magnified and trimmed to sound interesting, their most commonplace saying pushed and twisted into a "story."
Life without privacy is a nightmare. These “stories,” if not actually untrue, are so trimmed with mental lace as to be almost unrecognisable from the original incident.
Delius refuses to discuss himself through the medium of the press, in any way at all to be drawn into any “I do's,” or “I dont's,” whatsoever; he dislikes it intensely, so that these “stories” continue to circulate, and people form a vague idea he is living in straitened circumstances and so ill that he cannot leave his house.
All this is very disheartening to those who are doing all they can for his welfare. And as I spent some five or six weeks with him last autumn, [1] it is my intention to give a short and clear account of his life as he lives it now.

The Beautiful Home
He lives in an old French château, with three rambling staircases, many old-world rooms, which he bought from the Marquis de Cazeau, some twenty years ago. It has one of the most beautiful gardens that I have ever seen, running down to a wide river, on which he used often to row in his white boat, and it was here that he wrote some of his most lovely compositions, such as “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring” which we have heard so often lately, especially on the wireless.
It will be noticed that so many of his works take their theme or their name from nature, sunset, clouds, rain, sunshine, trees in the wind, the soft, low notes of a running river, all these can be depicted, and one is left with an idea as clear as though one had seen it in a picture, or read it in a poem, and no wonder, with the inspiration of his garden, which I am now going to describe.

The Garden
This is entered through a wide, covered portico, on the right side of which is the hall door, so that one drives in, and enters the hall dry shod. This portico leads to a paved courtyard, with the stables and coach house on one side and an “English garden” on the other. Peaches, plums, pears, apples, tomatoes, and figs, etc., grow in this old French garden, surrounded by the grey and lichened walls, which form a picturesque background for a riot of glowing flowers.
When I shut my eyes I can see it now- late roses, great, sweet overblown things, flaming dahlias, and bushes of mauve Michaelmas daisies, over it all the hot September sunshine, and the soft hum of the bees, scuttling from flower to flower.
Rambling along the edges of the flower beds and paths are tomatoes, growing in such profusion as to fill the store-rooms until long after Christmas.

The River
In the middle of the garden is a summer house, below that lies the lily pond and rustic bridge, then the orchard. Shady trees and cool, green lawns lead down to the river, which is very wide and placid, fringed on either bank by trees, growing in grass meadows. Quaint grey paths wind all about the garden of this great composer, whose deep love of nature speaks so plainly in all his works.
From underneath the vaulted cellar flows a spring of pure water, which remains ice cold through the hottest summer, and runs through the garden to the river, this is called “La Source."
Frowning over the garden is an old tower, called “la Tour de la Reine Blanche,” all that remains of an old castle, in which was imprisoned long years ago “la Reine Blanche,” for an “affaire de coeur,” which banished her from the Court to the seclusion of the country, where she could ponder over her indiscreet romance. 
[To be continued]

Notes:
[1] Most likely the autumn of 1927. 

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Edward Elgar: King Olaf on Chandos

If I am honest, I am not an Elgar enthusiast. Do no get me wrong: I enjoy his music, and regard many of his works as masterpieces. My life would be much the poorer if I could not listen to the Violin Concerto, the Second Symphony and the sun-drenched Overture: In the South. Perhaps I ought to have said that I am not an Elgar ‘groupie’. By this I mean that there are huge tracts of the composer’s music that I do not particularly enjoy or appreciate. This includes (heresy to many, no doubt) the great oratorios, Gerontius, The Kingdom and The Apostles.  I do recognise these works as great music: it is just that they do not ‘do’ for me.  And I have to admit that the same goes for the two important works presented on this CD. My initial thought is that ‘King Olaf’ outstays his welcome and The Banner of St George is a period piece that, in spite some gorgeous melodies, is very much a ‘child of its time’.  Elgarians will no doubt roundly disagree.  

The excellent liner notes by Andrew Neill give the listener all the historical and analytical information that they will require. The texts of both works are also included with scores freely available on the Internet. However a few brief notes about each work may be of some interest.
The cantata Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, op.30 is a long work, lasting for more than eighty minutes, making it almost ‘operatic’ in length. The work is based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) which was made into a libretto consisting of a prologue, nine scenes and a concluding epilogue.  The work was completed in 1896 and was first performed in the Victoria Hall, Hanley during that year’s North Staffordshire Music Festival. The basic ‘plot’ of the cantata is the life, wars, loves and death of the great King Olaf, who was a Norse warrior turned Christian. In a rather politically incorrect manner, he used his sword to make converts to his new found faith.
The various sections include ‘The Challenge of Thor’, ‘King Olaf’s Return’, ‘The Conversion’, ‘Gudrun’, ‘The Wrath of Odin’, ‘Sigrid’, ‘Thyri’, ‘The Death of Olaf’ and the epilogue.  The whole proceedings are written from the point of view of the skalds or poets recalling the history at second-hand – a kind of Longfellow-ian version of the Canterbury Tales.
Even the Elgar Society’s own webpages note that the work has been criticised for the ‘banality of its lyrics and storyline’.  Yet the story is full of fascinating Norse mythology and legend.
I enjoyed listening to King Olaf, in spite of my reservations noted above. The performance is excellent with many beautiful and often deeply moving moments. Elgar has provided an internally consistent score that includes much fine music. My criticism is that it is over long and sometimes slow-moving. All that said, enthusiasts of this work will find it ideal.

The Banner of St George was composed the following year (1897) which was Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. It is a ‘ballad in two scenes and epilogue for chorus and orchestra’. The text was provided by the Bristolian poet Shapcott Wensley (Henry Shapcott) (1854-1917).  The cantata’s premiere was at the St Cuthbert’s Hall Choral Society event in London on 18 May of that year.  The story tells simply of the saving of the King of Sylenë’s daughter, Sabra from the wiles of the dragon by St. George of Cappadocia. The concluding epilogue (not written to be particularly complimentary to the valour of the Scots, Welsh or Irish) is a bit of jingoistic bombast: ‘Three crosses in concord blended/ The banner of Britain’s might!/ But the central gem of the ensign fair/ Is the cross of the dauntless knight!’
In spite of the work’s banality, it was warmly received by critics and audiences alike. And don’t get me wrong, I can do tub-thumping, sentimentality and vapidity with the best of them…at the bottom line, it is a ‘right good sing…’

Both works are stunningly performed. It is good that Andrew Davis has drawn on the excellent Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and that great city’s excellent choral forces to present this story of Norse and Cappadocian derring-do. The soloists Emily Birsan,  Barry Banks and Alan Opie take this music seriously and bring an operatic feel the the progress of King Olaf.  The singing of the choir is beyond reproach. As mentioned above, the liner notes are superb.

As far as I understand there is only one other recording of each work in the catalogues, both from EMI. King Olaf was recorded by Vernon Handley with the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra (EX 270553-3) and The Banner of St George was also issued by EMI with Richard Hickox and the Northern Sinfonia of England. (EL 270555-1)
I do not know the former recording, but I do have a soft spot for the latter, which I think has the edge on this new CD. Hickox seems to be able to imbue the work with more drama and intensity – especially in the ‘dragon and arrival of St George scenes.’  However, it is churlish to compare these recordings: all three are clearly produced by leading recording companies and performed by world class forces.

Elgar’s Cantatas (Olaf, Caractacus, Black Knight etc.) will never be my first choice of music. Having heard the two works on this CD, I cannot fail to be impressed with the composer’s ability to write engaging music for these prosaic texts. Some of the passages in both works are sublime and constitute miniature masterpieces within the entire work. Listeners who like to hunt latent potential in a composer’s early works will have great scope for their activities in King Olaf in particular. 

Track Listing:
Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf, op.30 (1896)
The Banner of St George (1897)
Emily Birsan (soprano) Barry Banks (tenor) and Alan Opie (baritone)
Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Choir of Collegiûm Mûsicûm, Edvard Grieg Kor, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Davis
CHANDOS CHSA5149 (2) 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Sir Henry Wood: A Tribute from E.J. Moeran

In 1954 the London Philharmonic Orchestra published a short booklet to commemorate the 75th birthday of Sir Henry Wood. It featured contributions form eminent musicians and composers of the day including Ernest Ansermet, Leopold Stokowski, Alan Bush, R.V.W. and Yehudi Menhuin. The composer E.J. Moeran’s (1894-1950) tribute is worth noting for his heartfelt, if somewhat prosaic tone. It would be of considerable interest to explore the programming of Sir Henry’s Saturday Concerts.

The Saturday Afternoons
Sir Henry Wood [1] has been the leading figure in London musical life for so long as to have become an institution, so much so that the imagination hesitates at the thought of orchestral music continuing to function otherwise than around him as its central pivot. For many years it has been due to his erudition and liveliness of perception that Londoners have been able to keep abreast of current musical thought. It is surely a unique record that the man who conducted the first performances in England of such old chestnuts as Casse-Noissete and Scheherazade (the latter in the same programme with another new work, Sir George Elvey’s Gavotte à la mode ancienne) [3] during the Prom season of 1896, still should be producing novelties at these same Proms in the 1944’s
The widespread popularity and the fame of the Proms has tended to obscure what, to the present writer in his student days, used to be the peak events of London orchestral activity, namely Sir Henry Wood’s fortnightly Saturday afternoon symphony concerts [4] with his Queen’s Hall Orchestra. It was at these concerts that one was accustomed to hear as a matter of course the best possible performances, prepared with adequate rehearsal, of big works of the utmost contemporary importance.
As for the composer [5] who has been fortunate enough to have a work produced by Sir Henry Wood, he has always to know full well beforehand that the conductor would spare neither himself nor his orchestra in the care and the artistry to be lavished on the study and performance of it.
There can be no parallel in which the creative renaissance has owed more to the unswerving championship of one executive artist, than that of music in England has to Sir Henry Wood.
E.J. Moeran

Notes:
[1] The first Prom Concert conducted by Henry Wood was on 10 August 1895.
[2] Moeran’s memory seems to have been a little confused. Sir Henry conducted George Elvey’s Gavotte à la mode ancienne at the prom on 13 October 1898. The first 'prom' performance of Tchaikovsky’s Casse-Noissette (The Nutcracker Suite) was on 1 September 1897. The first Proms performance of Scheherazade would appear to have been on 17 September 1914. Clearly Moeran would not have recalled some of these events as he would have only been four or five years old.
[3] Sir Henry Wood did indeed conduct during the 1944 Proms season. His last Prom was on 28 July of that year when the concerts had been moved to Bedford due to the V1 rocket raids. This final performance was of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony. Wood was take ill that evening and was unable to conduct the fiftieth anniversary Prom on 10 August.  This concert was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Wood died on 19 August 1944 in Hitchin, Hertfordshire.
[4] These concerts began in 1897 and took place on Saturday afternoons. They were weekly in the first years of the series, and later became fortnightly. The music was often of ‘contemporary importance’: the 1902-3 season for example included four tone poems by Richard Strauss – Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Tod und Verklärung and Ein Heldenleben
[5] E.J. Moeran was fortunate to have works conducted by Sir Henry Wood, including his Suite: Farrago (6 September 1934) and the Symphony in G minor (11 August 1938

Friday, 8 May 2015

Racine Fricker's Prelude, Elegy and Finale for strings: Three reviews.

In a review in The Spectator (19 January 1951) of the London Classical Orchestra’s concert (16 January 1951) conducted by Trevor Harvey at Chelsea Town Hall noted that: ‘Racine Fricker's Prelude, Elegy and Finale for strings is serious and impassioned, impressive at a first hearing, but promising more to a closer acquaintance like most of this composer's work. It is not common to find an artist in any medium so clear in his own mind about what he wishes to say or so direct and economical in the way he says it. There was more strength than sweetness in these three movements; but there was no display of forcefulness. None of that frantic posturing or cult of violence for its own sake which characterises the professional ‘strong men’ of music.’
Other works at this concert included Antony Hopkins Festival Overture, Mozart’s Piano concerto No.26 in D major ‘Coronation’ K.537 and an unspecified Haydn Symphony.

The same concert was reviewed in the Musical Times (April 1951) which noted that ‘Racine Fricker's Prelude, Elegy and Finale for strings, previously played at Darmstadt and on the wireless... Intensely thoughtful and poised music, which still finds time for beautiful and intriguing sonorities, it still has not the tremendous impact of this composer's symphony, or the friendly lyricism of the violin concerto.’

Edward Greenfield, writing in August 1965 edition of The Gramophone declared that ‘The item which endears the record to me most of all is Peter Racine Fricker’s Prelude, Elegy and Finale, a work which at once shows him at his most Hindemithian [1] and most passionate (not exactly a predictable combination). The prelude is brief but powerful and quickly leads to the emotional hear of the work, a magnificent Elegy which should be compulsory listening for anyone (progressive or reactionary) who has ever tended to dismiss Fricker. The finale brings a march which includes a vigorous fugato which may nowadays seem old hat but which is most effective none the less.’
Notes:
[1] ‘Hindemithian’ can imply strong contrapuntal lines and rather neo-classical in style. Percy Young has well written that Paul Hindemith was ‘immensely fluent, both are liable to appeal to the head rather than the heart (or to the eye rather than the ear), and… incline to circumlocution.’ There is a perception of Hindemith (and his followers) of writing ‘dry’ music lacking un emotion and grace.

There is a YouTube video of the Prelude, Elegy and Finale played by the Little Orchestra of London under the baton of Leslie Jones. 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Mátyás Seiber: The Joyce Settings on Lyrita

Three points. Firstly, for one of the finest of the British émigré composers, Mátyás Seiber is sadly under-represented on CD.  At present there seems to be four (five if we include the present disc) recordings entirely devoted to his music. This gives a moderately representative selection of his chamber music including the three String Quartets, some songs and a number of a cappella pieces.  A handful of his orchestral works have been issued including the Notturno for horn and strings, the Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra and the Besardo Suite No.2, also for string orchestra as part of compilations. It leaves a large amount of his catalogue missing from the recording studio, including ballets, film music and most of the jazz-inspired music. Secondly, the Mátyás Seiber Trust has produced a fine website that gives a good biography of the composer, a complete list of his music, a discography and much more. I do not need to replicate any of this: however a thumbnail sketch of the composer may be of interest for those who have not come across Seiber before. Thirdly, any reviewer of this current CD is largely absolved from any detailed discussion of the Joyce works by the comprehensive essay on MusicWeb International by Alan Gibbs.  This needs to be read by anyone with more than a passing interest in these great works. 
When Howard Hartog edited his European Music in the Twentieth Century (Penguin Books, 1957) Hugh Wood was able to state that Seiber’s ‘best known works’ were the present cantata Ulysses and the third string quartet ‘Quartetto Lirico’ (1951). Other ‘notable’ pieces were the Elegy and the ‘powerful’ Concert Piece for violin and piano.  If concertgoers were asked about Seiber’s music nowadays, I guess that the questioner would draw a blank. He seems to have largely disappeared from view. One possible exception to this is the ever popular Three Hungarian Folksongs.  This is where I was introduced to Seiber’s music: they featured in a concert of the now defunct Stepps and District Choral Society under their musical director, the Rev. Fred. Muir.  Shortly after this performance, I discovered the old Decca recording (SXL2232) of the present Elegy and the Three Fragments which had been released in 1960. The two Seiber pieces were coupled with Humphrey Searle’s fine Symphony No.1 played by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. I do not think I was impressed: how times change!

Mátyás Seiber was born in Budapest on 4 May 1905. He studied with fellow-Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly at that city’s Academy between 1919 and 1924.  His musical achievements included playing in the orchestra of a trans-Atlantic liner and time in Russia as a musical correspondent. In 1928 he taught at the newly-created jazz class at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt.  During this period he played in the Lenzewski Quartet and was musical director in various theatres.  In 1935 he immigrated to England where he was engaged in a number of jobs, including working in a publishing house, teaching at Morley College and founding the Dorian Singers.  From the end of the Second World War he concentrated on composing, teaching and conducting. Seiber was killed in a motor-car accident near Johannesburg on 25 September 1960.
As a composer, Mátyás Seiber engaged with a number of musical styles including jazz, Bartok and twelve-tone techniques. His catalogue of work is wide-ranging and includes an opera, three string quartets, a variety of concerted works and many songs and folk-song arrangements. 

Hugh Wood, in the liner notes, explains that James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses made a huge impact on Seiber in the years before he considered using the text for a musical setting.  The composer had ‘a deep insight into every level of meaning it (Ulysses) possessed.’  He became aware of the ‘peculiar affinities with music’ that the novel seemed to present.
The cantata Ulysses which was composed in 1947 is a considerable and impressive work by any account. It is scored for a large orchestra, tenor solo and chorus. Its duration is more than three quarters of an hour. In fact, Wood has suggested that it could be well be categorised as a ‘Choral Symphony’ in five movements rather than a cantata. It was premiered at the Central Hall Westminster on 27 May 1949.
The sleeve notes give a detailed exposition of Ulysses musical progress; however it is important to note that the cantata makes use of the ‘Ithaca’ section of Joyce’s book. This is composed of a ‘catechism’ of 309 questions and answers. It was apparently the author’s favourite section of the book.  Seiber has chosen metaphysical questions rather that majoring on some of the more pedestrian issues. The tenor solo (Alexander Young) is charged with raising five interrogations which are subsequently responded to by the chorus. These are 1. The Heaventree, 2. Meditations of Evolution increasingly vaster, 3. Obverse meditations of Involution, 4. Nocturne  Intermezzo and 5. Epilogue.

In a 1970 article in the Musical Times, Hugh Wood wrote, ‘the basic reason for the quality of this score is the successful fusion of disparate elements: the style is impure, that is, it is diverse and enriched from many sources.’ Holst, Bartok and Schoenberg are suggested as possible aesthetic markers. I felt this disparity of styles became largely unnoticed whilst listening to the cantata and it certainly did not trouble me. I think that two things can be adduced here. Firstly, Seiber has a perfect understanding of word-setting which couples text and music together in a satisfying unity. And, secondly, he has full control of the formal development of the work – from the opening to the closing low note, the cantata works its magic. The various elements seem perfectly natural in their setting and never give the impression of ‘cut and paste.’

The Elegy for viola and small orchestra was composed in 1953 and had been commissioned by the Donaueschingen Festival in Germany. It received its premiere there under the auspices of Hans Rosbaud conducting the Southwest German Radio Orchestra. The viola soloist was Ulrich Koch.  
This is a striking, but often introverted, work that explores a range of moods in its short compass. Hugh Wood mentions some of the Elegy’s diversity including fanfares of muted trumpets, rich string chords and a largely rhapsodic feel to much of the its progress. The scoring and the structure of the Elegy are much simpler than the two cantatas, yet the composer has imbued it with depth and considerable imagination. It is not a serial work, but inhabits a world of typically gentle dissonance. The Gramophone review of the 1960 LP noted that the solo viola sounded a little distant, and suggested it may be that the soloist Cecil Aronowitz may not have had the ‘knack of seizing the limelight.’ Any problems of balance appear to have been sorted out on this re-release. Aronowitz gives a fine and thoughtful presentation. Unfortunately, there is no other recording to compare it to. The London Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by the composer.

I was bowled over (42 years late!) by the Three Fragments from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The work was a commission from the Swiss section of the International Society of Contemporary Music and was subsequently premiered in Basel during November 1958. Seiber has used a wordless chorus with the text presented by speaker rather than a singer:  Peter Pears gives a stunning and often moving performance here.  There is an element of ‘sprechgesang’ with the ‘relative pitches’ of the words notated in the score. The accompaniment is by small ensemble including flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano and percussion.
The three sections of A Portrait that Seiber chose were when Stephen Dedalus finds inner-piece watching clouds floating across the sky, the ‘nightmarish’ sermon given by Father Arnall and finally the authors ‘rapturous sleep on the beach after admiring a young girl bathing her legs in the water.’
Although this is a 12-tone piece, I believe that Seiber’s serialism lies lightly on the work’s soundscape and development. There is some pointillism associated with Webern, but nothing that detracts from the Three Fragments approachability.  It is true that Seiber’s ultimately romantic style and his strong sense of lyricism makes his serialism a pleasure to listen to.

This CD is a masterpiece from the first bar to the last. Three of Mátyás Seiber finest works are presented here. Although the recording of the Elegy and the Three Fragments was made in 1960 and Ulysses derives from a 1972 BBC broadcast, the passing of years has not flawed the recordings. The liner notes by Hugh Wood, Alan Gibbs and Paul Conway are superb in their detail. The texts of Ulysses and the Three Fragments are included.

These three works are so important for the understanding of one particular trajectory of serialism and post-war music. It is unbelievable that it has taken until 2015 for Ulysses to be generally available on record or CD. The other two works have been deleted for a generation.  It seems to me that they should be taken up as repertoire pieces as soon as possible. For one thing, there is always a dearth of concerted works for viola.  Finally, it would be ideal if record companies and concert promoters could feature more music from Mátyás Seiber’s catalogue. Do we really need yet another recording of The Lark Ascending or Elgar’s Cello Concerto? Mátyás Seiber has only been played at the Promenade Concerts twice (Tre Pezzi (1959) and the Notturno (1955)).
Based on the magnificent quality of the works on this present CD this is a musical scandal.

Track Lisiting:
Ulysses: Cantata for Tenor Solo, chorus and orchestra (1947)
Elegy for solo viola and small orchestra (1954)
Three Fragments from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1957)
Alexander Young (tenor) London Symphony Orchestra & BBC Chorus/David Atherton, (Ulysses)
Cecil Aronowitz (viola) London Philharmonic Orchestra/Mátyás Seiber (Elegy)
Peter Pears (narrator) Dorian Singers & Melos Ensemble/Mátyás Seiber (Three Fragments)
Rec. BBC Archive Performance, broadcast 21 May 1972 (Ulysses)  Elegy & Three Fragments originally released on Decca SXL2232 (1960)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.


Saturday, 2 May 2015

Racine Fricker's Prelude, Elegy and Finale for strings: Programme Notes

Peter Racine Fricker’s Prelude, Elegy and Finale for strings, op.10 was written during March and April 1949. It was dedicated to ‘Helen’, the composer’s wife. The same year saw the completion of Fricker’s Symphony No. 1 and the Rondo Scherzoso for orchestra and work on the Violin Concerto. Recent compositions had included chamber music, an Organ Sonata  and Three Sonnets of Cecco Angiolieri, for tenor and seven instruments

The Prelude, Elegy and Finale premiere was given by the Darmstadt Stadttheater Orchestra conducted by Richard Kotz on 10 July 1949. The first broadcast performance was given on 12 January 1951 by the London Chamber Orchestra conducted by Anthony Bernard.  I understand that the the first British public hearing was by the London Classical Orchestra conducted by Trevor Harvey at Chelsea Town Hall, 16 January 1951.
There is a YouTube video of the  Prelude, Elegy and Finale played by the Little Orchestra of London under the baton of Leslie Jones.

Programme Notes
In this Suite, the composer shows most noticeably amongst the admitted influences on his style that of Hindemith, thought the utterance is his individual reflection on life. This has been well-stated as ‘the bitter awareness, but not the resignation.’ Moreover, he has not in his aims felt compelled to resort to the ‘coarse violence’ and ear-shattering devices now almost invariably (though not always justly) associated with the modern composer. This is not to say, however, that his music is at first hearing the more assimilable, for he compresses so many pregnant ideas into small design, that much of the ingenuity is not straightaway apparent.
The three movements are played without a break. The short Prelude is broad and spacious, opening with a powerful utterance of an irregular scale figure set against resemblances of its own inversion, over a persistent pedal note. Soon a quieter theme emerges in the second violins, but the mood is desultory, and after a quiet but strangely dissonant chord suggesting abandonment, another bar of bustling agitation heralds the return of the opening ideas, but only momentarily. Over a harshly sounded and unresolved cadence through which the music subsides, the first violins appear to anticipate abortively their escape to the mood of the Elegy and their context is taken hold by the violas, and becomes focal matter of the climax. They also have the last opportunity of recapitulating the theme (in their tessitura with added pathos) the movement ending with brief references from the first violins against a dirge-like accompaniment. This is shrugged off immediately by the brisk, inspiring tune of the march-style Finale. A second theme, introduced by the violas, later (when doubled in note value) provides material for the fugato episode. The excitement of the final bars is heightened by the cleverly shifted accents, jolted to a halt by sustained declamatory octaves, and all ends enigmatically with a shattering chord.
Programme Note: Pye Golden Guinea GSGC-14042.