Monday, 24 July 2017

A Dozen British 20th Century Orchestral Works I would love to see recorded.

Just a list of a dozen orchestral works that I understand have never been recorded. Four or five of them are by relatively well-known composers, although I guess that none of them are household names or feature in the Classic FM Hall of Fame. I understand (but do not know for sure) that the Lutyens piece is not in her ’12-tone-Lizzie’ style but is representative of her work in writing music for film documentaries. 
  1. Arthur Benjamin: From San Domingo (includes part for tenor saxophone)
  2. Geoffrey Bush: Two Schubert Scherzos
  3. Howard Carr: The Jolly Roger (fantasy)
  4. Francis Chagrin: Concert Rumba
  5. Gaze Cooper: Tone Poem 'Newton, Lincs,' op.27
  6. Ronald Duncan Highland Rhapsody
  7. Inglis Gundry: The Logan Rock
  8. Pamela Harrison: An Evocation of the Weald
  9. John Longmire: Green Park (for light orchestra)
  10. Elisabeth Lutyens: Suite -The English Seaside
  11. Freda Swain: Marshland: tone poem for chamber orchestra
  12. Graham Whettham: Red Cliffs and the Sea – Symphonic Poem

Friday, 21 July 2017

Iain Hamilton: Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and orchestra (1958)

One of my recent discoveries is the splendid Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and orchestra by the Scottish composer Iain Hamilton (1922-2000).
Fellow Scottish writer, Maurice Lindsay (1918-2009) has outlined some of the musical achievements made during 1958. He considered that is was ‘scarcely [a] significant [year] for new music…’ He then goes on to enumerate a couple of works that have gained considerable traction over the last 60 years. His list includes Michael Tippett’s opera King Priam (not performed until May 1962), Benjamin Britten’s dream-like Nocturne for tenor, seven obligato instruments and strings, Witold Lutolawski’s Funeral Music. Other works that made a first appearance were Luciano Berio’s ‘Differences’ for five instruments and tape, Ligeti’s Artikulation for tape and Thea Musgrave’s Obliques as well as the present work by Iain Hamilton. None of these appear to have maintained the listeners interest. The most significant event in British music was the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose long career ended on 26 August 1958. His powerful Symphony No. 9 in E minor was heard on 2 April 1958 some three months before the composer’s death.

Iain Hamilton’s usual musical style is usually deemed to be ‘progressive’, initially utilising serial techniques, before adapting to a more romantic style in his later career. On the other hand, Hamilton was no stranger to light music. In 1956, he had composed a delightful set of Scottish Dances, which included moments more suitable to smoke-filled New York jazz venues than the Highland ceilidh. Other lighter fare included the Overture: 1912 (1958) and the Overture: Bartholomew Fair (1952). The ‘Dances’ and the ‘1912’ have been issued on White Line CD. However, these have been deleted from the catalogues.

The Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and orchestra was commissioned by the BBC for the 1958 Festival of Light Music. The composer was clearly paying homage to the great jazz trumpeters of the of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. However, only one is acknowledged explicitly: Ray Robinson. This occurs when the soloist is required to use a ‘Robinson cup-mute’ in the second movement. This now obsolete mute was designed by Robinson and gives a unique sound.
The work is composed in four well-balanced movements, although the first and second are played without a break. The opening of the concerto begins with a ‘medium blues’ section, before segueing into an ‘allegro: quick bounce.’  The third movement is played ‘lento’ and features a delicious slow blues theme. The finale is a vibrant ‘allegro’ however, there is a short reprise of the blues music just before the coda.
The work was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall on 21 June 1958 the soloist was George Swift, who at that time was billed as Britain’s answer to Harry James, with the BBC Concerto Orchestra conducted by Vilem Tausky.

I was unable to locate a review of this 1958 concert in any of the main broadsheets or contemporary music journals. However, I did discover a relatively recent performance of the work give at Glasgow’s City Hall on Saturday 25 June 2011. The soloist was the Norwegian trumpet player Tine Thing Helseth and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was conducted by their associate guest conductor, Andrew Manze. 
Michael Tumelty reviewed this concert for the Glasgow Herald (27 June 2011). He considered that ‘clarity was not enough to deliver Iain Hamilton's Concerto with any conviction, despite the outstanding playing of Tine Thing Helseth.’ He believed that ‘it is simply neither a jazz nor a swing piece; moreover, it needs to be freed from the printed note and given to a jazz trumpeter to make it viable in any form.’ I disagree with this suggestion: the work is perfectly satisfactory as a concerto utilising the ‘swing’ and ‘blues’ style in this pastiche manner. There is no need to include improvisation as Hamilton’s instrumentation ably creates the desired effect. 

Kenneth Walton (The Scotsman 27 June 2011) dutifully reported that ‘[the concerto] by the late Scots composer Iain Hamilton …was surprisingly worlds away from the austere modernism we generally associate with his music.’ I accept his view that the ‘Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and Orchestra was clearly a bit of fun on his part, laced freely with big band harmonies and a solo line that Harry James would have died for.’ Yet, Hamilton did take his light music works seriously They are never patronising. Walton concluded: ‘Helseth played it subtly (a little underplayed at times) and with an aptly free and easy swing.’

In 2006, trumpet player John Wallace with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Wright issued a recording of Hamilton’s Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and orchestra on White Line CD (WHL2159).  Other works on this CD include John Carmichael’s (b.1930) Trumpet Concerto (1972), Rutland Boughton’s (1878-1960) Trumpet Concerto (1943) and Tony Hewitt-Jones’s (1926-88) Concerto for trumpet and strings (1986).

Reviews of this impressive CD were full of praise. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (The Gramophone, September 2006), considered that the CD presented ‘real performances - not without blemish, but positive, fun, carefree and bright-eyed.’ Like virtually every other reviewer, including myself, Attwood feels that ‘Iain Hamilton's Concerto for Jazz Trumpet is …the pick of the crop where Wallace and the resourceful BBC Scottish SO switch effortlessly into the groove of late 1950s blues.’
Jonathan Woolf (MusicWeb International, 6 March 2006) in an extensive review of the work initially wondered why the work was called a Concerto for Jazz Trumpet; ‘What’s that?’ he mischievously asks: -
‘Is it shaped like Dizzy Gillespie’s? Well, I think we know what he means. There are four brief movements. In the first we get some blowsy Harry James vibrato getting down with ‘Stormy Weather’, a tune that runs like a spine throughout, and this is followed by an allegro with big band drumming, hints of Ziggy Elman, and chances for the soloist to stick in a [Robinson] mute to add colour and different timbres to the brew. The slow movement has a fine string cushion and legato trumpet, stretching out, but also undercurrents of unease. The finale gives us some show band, tempo halving, back beat and a reprise of Stormy Weather (some kind of ‘in’ joke for the hard-working soloist, one wonders?).’

Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, 06 January 2006) finds the Hamilton comes as ‘a ragingly strange gear-change from fifties [style] light suave (Carmichael’s Trumpet Concerto) straight into four movements of jazzy scorch, smooch and swoon. John Wallace and the orchestra do the honours in the Iain Hamilton concerto with breath-taking abandon. This is [the] renowned controversialist Hamilton slumming it with death-defying style. There is not a hint of the 1960s and 1970s Manchester School…Here however Hamilton carries off the act without an arched eyebrow or a wink. He plays it serious and for me the piece works resoundingly well. He vies with Gershwin and Bernstein in evocation of hot summers and the jitteriest of jitter-bugs.’

Finally, Paul Snook reviewing the CD in Fanfare (July 2006) insisted that, for him ‘…the highlight of this program is Iain Hamilton's rambunctiously sleazy concerto for jazz trumpet…’ and ‘thus may very well be the most distinctive and likable ‘pop’ concerto of its kind in the trumpet repertoire.’ 
I have not heard a better example of a ‘pop’ concerto. It is unbelievable that it is not regularly heard on Classic FM and in the concert hall.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Bryan Kelly: Cuban Suite (c.1956)

The first piece of music by Bryan Kelly (b.1934) that I heard was his ‘Exultate’ which was published in the Oxford Book of Modern Organ Music, Volume 1. It was played as a recessional during a service in a Glasgow church. Since that time, I have come across a few bits and pieces, including anthems, carols and liturgical music. YouTube has uploaded the composer’s Symphony No. 1 (1983), however this is not a particularly good recording, sound-wise. Suffice to say that from what one hears, this work deserves a full professional recording.

The piece by Kelly that I know best is his delightful Cuban Suite. The composer noted that he ‘…wrote the Cuban Suite while still a student. It remained un-played for three years but was eventually taken up by the BBC and has become, since its first performance, a popular repertoire piece.’
The work was released on a splendid LP recorded by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra issued in 1970. The orchestra was conducted by Eric Pinkett. Other works on this album included Arthur Bliss’s Introduction and Allegro, Andre Previn’s Overture to a Comedy, John Ireland’s ‘Elegy’ from a Downland Suite, Herbert Chappell’s Overture-Panache and Michael Tippett’s ‘Interlude’ and ‘Non nobis Domine’ from A Shires Suite. I do not believe that any other recording of this Suite has been made.

The sleeve notes of the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra includes the composer’ analytical description of the Suite: ‘The four movements in dance-like character, are unashamed attempts to write popular light music with immediate appeal. The first movement [Siesta] is slow and lazy, the second a 6/8 scherzo, the third a nostalgic tango, and the finale a rumba in which two themes are eventually combined with the theme from the opening of the Suite. After the first performance I was asked by the conductor if I had written the Cuban Suite before or after the Castro revolution. I leave the listener to guess my answer!’
There is little information available to date the Cuban Suite, however I understand that it was composed before 1960, therefore before Fidel Castro’s revolution.  I guess probably sometime after 1956.
T..H writing in The Gramophone (April 1971) suggests that this work is ‘uncommonly gifted for a student work, even if it is, as he writes, an unashamed attempt to write popular light music with immediate appeal…’ He concludes his comment by suggesting that the School Orchestra ‘…enjoyed playing the…tango…as relaxation from the demands of Bliss.’
The German newspaper Westfalische Nachrichten (16 September 1970) reviewing a concert performance of this work in that country considered that ‘Bryan Kelly's much - broadcast Cuban Suite brought it to a sunny and tuneful close’ and that ‘its pithy brevity and marked character made great demands on the musicianship of the orchestra.’

Bryan Kelly’s Cuban Suite, played by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra is available on YouTube. It includes a brief introduction. 

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Fred. Delius and Arnold Bax Choral Music on Naxos

This wonderful CD of choral music by Frederick Delius and Arnold Bax opens with one of my ‘top three’ all-time favourite British part-songs: Delius’ setting of Arthur Symons (1865-1945) ‘On Craig Ddu’. For the record, the other two are John Ireland’s atmospheric ‘The Hills’ and Charles Villiers Stanford’s gorgeous ‘The Blue Bird.’

Fred Delius wrote comparatively little music for unaccompanied chorus. Robert Threlfall’s A Catalogue of the Compositions of Frederick Delius (1977) lists 11 examples: there are also a few arrangements made from the operas and incidental music which are excluded from this tally. Virtually all the ‘original’ part-songs are recorded on this disc. But where is the ‘Wanderer’s Song’ for men’s voices?

Unsurprisingly, Arthur Symons’ poem imagines a sensitive youth sitting high ‘On Craig Ddu’, which seems to be an arch-typical mountain, possibly ‘located’ somewhere in Wales: I am sure that the image is simply a metaphor for someone looking at the hustle and bustle of life from afar. Delius has created a sound that is impressionistic: the music hangs in the cool highland air. The part-writing is perfect.
‘On Craig Ddu’ has the honour of being the very first Delius work that Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock) heard. It was to be hugely influential on his development as a composer of vocal music.

Less-well-known, even to Delius aficionados, are the ‘Six Part Songs’ for mixed voices. These settings of German and Norwegian poems were composed between 1885 and 1887. They are not presented in catalogue-order on this CD.
The first, ‘Ave Maria’ with words by Emanuel von Geibel (1815-84), is a rarity for a composer who was a confirmed atheist. Yet this is a thoughtful, numinous reflection on Our Lady’ theological role. The following song, ‘Durch den Wald’ (Through the Woods) by Von Schreck[?] is a choral gambol through shady forest paths. The liner notes suggest that this ‘Schumann-esque’ setting evokes a young man waiting for his lover. There is a darker moment as he wonders if she will turn up. Fortunately, she does arrive.  The brief ‘An den Sonnenschein’, with a poem by Robert Reinick (1805-52) is in similar vein, considering the ‘shining, golden sun.’  The ‘Fruhlingsanbruch’ (The Coming of Spring) by Carl Andersen (1828-83), is a happy little study on larks and singing zephyrs. The song quietly concludes by noting that ‘the world is awoken to most blessed joy.’  The final song in this group is the lively ‘Sonnenscheinlied’ (Song of Sunshine) by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910), which presents a mood of summer, only to be spoilt by midges.
The present CD tracks reflect the Delius Collected Edition by including Henrik Ibsen’s (1828-1906) ‘Her ute skal gildet staa’ (Here we shall feast) (1891) in these Six Part Songs. It is the least successful of the set.
The Carice Singers have not included the setting of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Lorelei,’ as this was probably by another hand.

Another good example of choral writing is the two wordless Unaccompanied Part-songs: ‘To Be Sung of a Summer Night on the Water’ (1917). The first, ‘slow but not dragging’ is a master-class of Delius’ chromatic harmonic language and epitomises his choral style. It is pointless to ask where this stretch of water is located: it may be Grez-sur-Loing, the Thames, in Yorkshire or Florida. The music is universal.  I do not think that the second song ‘Gaily, but not quick’ is quite as successful as the first: it is certainly not as perfect in design. The solo tenor ardently (a little strained here) sings against a background of ‘La-La’ from the choir. There is something here that suggests the orange groves of Solano rather than the Thames at Maidenhead or the Aire at Bradford.  

‘The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls’ sets words from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s (1809-92) The Princess. The liner notes point out that this is a musical vision ‘…as so often in Delius’s work, one seemingly heard from afar, fading into an infinite horizon.’ This well-written part-song creates all the magic of the ‘horns of Elfland faintly blowing’. Many listeners will be familiar with Benjamin Britten’s setting of the same words in his peerless Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. 

The ‘Midsummer Song’ for eight voices, is a tiny miniature composed in 1908 for musical festival competitions in the north of England.  It was first performed by the Whitley Bay and District Choral Society, under its director William Gillies Whittaker. Most of the poem is about the joys of love and dance and play, but author R.S. Hoffmann (?) reminds us that the ‘night is not far away.’ The music is jaunty, but occasionally a touch wistful.

Arnold Bax wrote little music for unaccompanied chorus. Graham Parlett’s Catalogue (1999) lists only six works in this genre. One work included on this CD of otherwise unaccompanied choral music is ‘Of a Rose I sing a song, which is a carol for harp, cello, double bass and small choir’ It would have been good if the Carice Singers could have included Bax’s contribution to ‘A Garland for the Queen’ (1953) – ‘What is it like to be young and fair?’, and possibly ‘The Boar’s Head’ which was written for 4-part male voices.
All the works by Arnold Bax have been previously recorded, with The Finzi Singers conducted by Paul Spicer (CHANDOS 9139) providing the nearest competition.

The Bax website currently lists 11 recordings (June 2017) of the motet ‘This Worldes Joie.’  This was composed during 1922, which also saw the completion of the Symphony No. 1 and the Oboe Quintet. The words are derived from a late 13th century text, printed in The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900, (1901). There is a bleakness and desolation about this music that reflects the opening lines, ‘Winter wakeneth all my care/Now these leaves waxeth bare.’ There are very occasional flashes of warmth but this is largely nullified by the music reiterating ‘All we shall die’ which builds up to huge climax:  this is matched by equally bleak music.

The Five Greek Folksongs for unaccompanied chorus was a wartime work, completed in 1942. Parlett quotes a letter from the composer that sums up these settings: ‘I have been arranging some Greek folk-music…at the request of dear old Calvocoressi – such queer Balkan tunes that I have got quite a lot of amusement out of treating them…’ Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi (1877-1944) was a French music critic and author. He had made several translations of Balkan folk-songs.
Five Greek Folksongs begin with the the ‘modally inflected’ ‘Miracle of Saint Basil’. This is followed by the poignant ‘The Bridesmaid’s Song’ which includes two soprano solos.  ‘In far-off Malta’, captures the wit of the tale of the deacon who stained his surplice with ink, whilst writing his ‘tale of my great love.’ My favourite of the series is ‘The Happy Tramp’ which is thoughtful, and ends when the wanderer is safely home with ‘warm dry clothes’, ‘plump partridges a-roasting’ and ‘loving arms.’ ‘A Pilgrim's Chant’ brings this cycle to a close by once again referring to St Basil, and the tolling of the church bells. All five folk-songs are beautiful, and have been ‘realised’ by Arnold Bax with skill and understanding, despite him being ‘rather bored’ by the whole project. They are convincingly sung on this recording.

‘Of a Rose I sing a song’, which was written for (but not dedicated to) Charles Kennedy Scott and the Oriana Madrigal Society. It is an attractive number that presents some of the ‘otherworld’ magic featured in much of Bax’s music. It is an esoteric meditation on the Nativity of Christ.

‘I Sing of a Maiden that is Matchless’ was composed for five unaccompanied voices, although it is usually sing by a five-part chorus. The anonymous 15th century text was again taken from The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900, (1901). The words present a tender description of the Virgin Mary: ‘Well may such a lady/Godes mother be’. It is a well-wrought, chromatic, little piece that matches Our Lady’s perfection.

Bax’s magnum opus on this CD is the long, complex ‘Mater Ora Filium’ (1921), written for unaccompanied double chorus with a short solo for tenor. It is a song of devotion to Mary and her Son. The liner notes describe the work as a ‘virtuosic essay,’  It is complex and presents the choir with considerable technical challenges. Bax was inspired to compose this magnificent motet after hearing a performance of William Byrd’s Five Part Mass during a concert held in Wyndham Place, organised by Harriet Cohen.  Clearly, this work is filled with the spirit of the Elizabethan era, though there is no way that Bax has created a parody, pastiche or archaism.
‘Mater Ora Filium’ was first performed at the Queen’s Hall on 13th November 1922 by the Oriana Madrigal Society conducted by Charles Kennedy Scott.

Daniel M. Grimley has produced essential, readable liner notes for all these songs. All the texts are printed along with translations where appropriate
I found the singing by the Carice Singers  virtually faultless. Intonation and diction are perfect. Along with their director, George Parris, they provide definitive performances of all these choral works. The ensemble was founded by Parris in 2011 and owe their name to the daughter of Edward Elgar. Carice [Irene Elgar] was a contraction of Caroline and Alice. She was born in 1890 and died as late as 1971. It is hardly surprising that the singers’ first three discs are dedicated to English music (Warlock, Moeran, Ireland, Bax and Delius). 

Track Listing:
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
On Craig Ddu (1907), Ave Maria (1885-87), Durch den Wald (1885-87), An den Sonnenschein (1885-87), Frühlingsanbruch (1885-87), Her ute skal gildet staa (1891), Sonnenscheinlied (1885-87), Two Unaccompanied Part-songs: To Be Sung of a Summer Night on the Water (1917), The Splendour falls on Castle Walls (1923), Midsummer Song (1908)
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
This Worldes Joie (1922), Five Greek Folksongs (1942), Of a Rose I Sing a Song (1920), I Sing of a Maiden that is Makeless (1923), Mater Ora Filium (1921)
The Carice Singers/George Parris
NAXOS 8.573695 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Four British Composers: A Record Find

Whilst in Glasgow a few weeks ago, I discovered (and purchased) an old vinyl LP from Mixed Up Records in Otago Street. It was an album that I had not seen or heard of before, presenting works by four diverse ‘modern’ British composers. All but one of them are now dead. Knowingly, I have only heard one of these works before.
The four pieces were:
Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012): Calendar for chamber orchestra
Alexander Goehr (b.1932): Two Choruses, op.14
Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016): Leopardi Fragments for soprano, contralto and chamber ensemble
Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003): Symphony for voices.

This album was one of eight [?] sponsored by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and issued by EMI Records in the mid-nineteen-sixties. For details of each albums’ content, see my blog-post on 28 May 2017.  The series’ aim was to create a ‘broad conspectus of the musical scene over the past 30 years’ (The Gramphone January 1965) from the perspective of 1965. This involved selecting music from composers as wide-ranging as Kurt Weill, Pierre Boulez, Malcolm Williamson and Charles Koechlin.
The jury of the 1966 Koussevitzky International Recording Award hailed the series as ‘a collaboration between a philanthropic foundation, a recording company and the music world…of the highest importance and significance,’ whilst selecting Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘Leopardi Fragments’ for a special prize.

‘Four British Composers’ (ALP 2093) was issued in 1965 by EMI and was subsequently re-released on Argo (ZRG 758) in 1974. The album included sleeve notes by Anthony Payne and a comprehensive insert with texts, musical examples and programme notes written by the composers.

Payne, on the rear cover of the LP, presents an overview of the album. He explains that during the late 1950s younger British composers who had ‘accepted the innovations of the Viennese serialists’ [Berg, Schoenberg and Webern] were beginning to gain a reputation. Due to the ‘time-lag characteristic of British music’ and a ‘certain innate conservatism’ a diverse group of composers had arisen. These tended to avoid the excesses of the ‘extreme continental experimenter’ by developing their own voice which takes ‘what best suits them from various source. None of the composers represented on this album ‘found it necessary, in accepting the Schoenbergian experience, to restrict himself to twelve note (or even serial) methods.’ Payne concludes by suggesting that all four composers ‘write against the background of serialism, but has also to a greater of lesser extent integrated it with other methods.

For anyone, at that time, wishing to explore a good cross-section of the ‘newer names on the English musical scene…this [was an] attractive [disc].’ JN (The Gramophone September 1965) felt that this ‘record will provide an admirable chance of getting to know four of the most recent generation of English composers to establish a reputation and to recognize their very distinct musical personalities.’

The album presents four works that are not necessarily ground-breaking in their achievement. None of them could be regarded, in hindsight, as being a major contribution to each composer’s catalogue. All four men have produced ‘larger and deeper’ works that have confirmed and expanded their several reputations.  What this album does deliver is an ‘early’ understanding of their ‘individual musical characters.’ It was a timely historical artefact.

From the perspective of 2017, it is unfortunate to say that only Peter Maxwell Davies seems to have maintained a commanding presence in the mind of listeners. Alexander Goehr is known to the musical cognoscenti, but is hardly a household name. Richard Rodney Bennett is now best recalled for his film scores (Murder on the Orient Express and Four Weddings and a Funeral) with his ‘serious’ music largely slipping into the shadows. It seems that Malcolm Williamson has been forgotten. Even the promised cycle of orchestral music from Chandos Records was curtailed in 2007.

All four works on this LP are available on CD. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Calendar,  Alexander Goehr’s Two Choruses, op.14 and Peter Maxwell Davies Leopardi Fragments have been released on Icon Music among Friends: Melos, Warner Classics 5099991851451. This is a remastering of the original LP.
Malcolm Williamson ‘Symphony for Voices’ has been given a new recording on Naxos 8.557783 (2006). I am not aware of that the version on this present LP has been re-issued. 

I will investigate Richard Rodney Bennett’s Calendar for chamber ensemble in a subsequent post. 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Bernard Stevens (1916-1983) - a short profile

A short profile I wrote for last year’s (2016) centenary of Bernard Steven’s birth, which was not used at the time.
Three things have mitigated against Bernard Stevens. First, is a general lack of interest in composers from the generation who came to maturity at the end of the Second World War. This includes, Humphrey Searle, Benjamin Frankel and Robert Simpson. Stevens’ musical style was neither avant-garde, nor serialist nor traditionalist.  He did not belong to a ‘school’ or ‘group.’ Second, he was not a self-publicist: he rarely pushed his music into the concert hall or recital room. And, finally, for much of his career he was an unrepentant Marxist which, at that time, did not endear him to the musical establishment.

Bernard George Stevens was born on 2 March 1916 in Stamford Hill, London. Early musical training was provided by Harold Samuel.  He majored in English and music at Cambridge University where he gained his MA and BMus degrees respectively. Between 1937 and 1940 he studied at the Royal College of Music, where his teachers included R.O. Morris (composition), Gordon Jacob (orchestration), Arthur Benjamin (piano) and Constant Lambert (conducting).  During war service between 1940 and 1946 with the Royal Army Pay Corps he became involved in the Workers’ Musical Association. This Association was founded in 1936 by the composer Alan Bush, with the intention of furthering the aspirations of working class music-making. It is still going strong. Stevens wrote a number of pieces for them. He was vice-president of the Association from 1946 and took part in delegations to Eastern European countries. In 1948 Stevens returned to the RCM as professor of harmony, counterpoint, and composition. He remained at this institution until 1981. Other academic posts included a professorship at the University of London from 1967.

His enthusiasm for the Communist Party waned after the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. Stevens had a deep spirituality, which expressed itself in a number of works, including the cantata Et Resurrexit, op.43 (1969) and the stunningly beautiful Mass for unaccompanied double choir of 1939. He was a member of the Teilhard de Chardin Society which promulgated a synthesis of evolutionary theory and Christianity.
Bernard Stevens died at the Essex County Hospital on 3 January 1983. He had struggled with cancer since 1978.

Stevens’ style is European in outlook rather than specifically English. His music is influenced, but not dominated by, Paul Hindemith, Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, Ferruccio Busoni and Alan Bush. He was less-concerned about writing music aimed at addressing ideological problems of left-wing politics than Alan Bush.
A number of Stevens’ works look back to the Elizabethan age with titles such as Fantasia on ‘Giles Farnaby’ Dreame’ for Piano, op.22 (1953) and Introduction, Variations and Fugue on a theme of Giles Farnaby for orchestra, op.47 (1972).

The powerful and ultimately triumphant, Symphony of Liberation op.7 (1945) won the Daily Express competition for a ‘Victory Symphony.’  The premiere of this work was given on 7 June 1946 at the Royal Albert Hall by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Malcolm Sargent.  Other important compositions include the Concerto for violin and orchestra, op.4 (1943), the Concerto for cello and orchestra, op.18 (1952), the Concerto for piano and orchestra, op.26 (1955), the Symphony No.2, op.35 (1964) and Thanksgiving for chorus and string orchestra, op.37 (1965).

Only a small percentage of Bernard Stevens’ work is currently available on CD. However, most of the orchestral pieces have been recorded, as well as a fair tranche of chamber music. The Mass for double choir was released by Chandos in 1992.
There is sufficient in the catalogue for the listener to gain a good understanding of his style. The best place to begin is with the extract from the film score The Mark of Cain. This is more romantic in tone than much of Stevens’ music, and is well-written and immediately approachable. It was arranged by Adrian Williams in 1995.

Some works to listen to:
Suite from The Mark of Cain (1947) (accessed 12 April 2016)
Sinfonietta for string orchestra, op.10 (1948) (Lyrita REAM.1117 Mono)
Symphony of Liberation: Symphony No.1, op.7 (1945) (Meridian CDE84124)
Variations for orchestra, op.36 (1964) (Marco Polo 8.223480)Concerto for piano and orchestra, op.26 (1955) (Marco Polo 8.223480)
Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir (1939) (Chandos CHAN 9021)

If the listener can only hear a single work, I would recommend the Symphony of Liberation, op.7.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

1967: Half-Centenary Proms British Music Novelties

Lennox Berkeley: Serenade for strings, op.12 (1939)
Arthur Bliss: Suite ‘Miracle in the Gorbals (1945)
Benjamin Britten: The Burning Fiery Furnace, op.77 (1966)
Roberto Gerhard: Symphony No.3 ‘Collages’ (1960)
Gustav Holst: Choral Fantasia, op.51 (1930)
Elisabeth Lutyens: And suddenly its evening, for tenor and eleven instruments (1966)
Henry Purcell: Voluntary on the 100th psalm tune (? c.1690)
Humphrey Searle: Oxus, Scena for tenor and orchestra (commissioned for the BBC) (1967)
Robert Simpson: Symphony No.3 (1962)
Arthur Sullivan: Excepts from The Sorcerer (1877)
Thomas Wilson: Touchstone: Portrait for orchestra (commissioned for the BBC)

The novelties at the 1967 Promenade Concerts were a bit of a mixed bag. ‘Catch-up’ seems to be the order of the day. I can understand the excavation of Henry Purcell’s Voluntary on the 100th Psalm tune. It is reasonably good piece that deserved an airing in the 1960s. However, I find it hard to believe that an attractive and approachable work like Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for strings, op.12 had to wait 28 years before its first appearance at these concerts. The same could said of Gustav Holst’s powerful Choral Fantasia dating from 1930. It has survived, just about, on CD.
Arthur Bliss’s ballet score Miracle in the Gorbals has held its head above the water, certainly in the recording studio. There have been at least four versions of this work, however three of these are historical recordings.

Benjamin Britten’s legacy is quite capable of taking care of itself. The Burning Fiery Furnace may not be his most popular music drama, but it is represented in the CD catalogue (ArkivMusic) with the Decca recording featuring Peter Pears, Bryan Drake and John Shirley-Quirk. This compared to at least 23 versions of Peter Grimes.

The Sorcerer is my least favourite of G&S opera: perhaps because I do not know it as well as the others.  However, it must have been good to have heard these excerpts 90 years on. It was part of a sparkling Savoy Opera Night featuring The Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe, The Gondoliers and Ruddigore. Marcus Dodds conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the soloists included Owen Brannigan, Sheila Armstrong and John Cameron.

Perhaps surprisingly, Roberto Gerhard’s 1960 Symphony No.3 ‘Collages’ has been recorded three times. I have never heard this work in the concert hall: it does not seem to be a regular feature either in Spain or the UK. It is a splendid ‘modern’ work, incorporating ‘electronic music’ that would do much to counter the sub-Einaudi music that seems to permeate the air waves in 2017.

Robert Simpson’s superb two-movement Symphony No.3 was composed in 1960. It was a Birmingham Symphony Orchestra commission. The work is dedicated to Havergal Brian. Listeners will be aware of the antagonism between Simpson and the BBC that sometimes raised it head. For a major composer, he had only five works performed at Promenade Concert: it does say something. The present Symphony No.3 is a masterpiece. It deserves an important place in the symphonic repertoire of British orchestras.

Elisabeth Lutyens’ ‘And suddenly its evening’ is certainly a modernist work. She has created a score that is both sensuous and approachable (for a serial work, at any rate). There is a (single) splendid recording of this work on Lyrita (SRCD.265). I guess that it is rarely heard in the concert hall. 

Neither of the two BBC Commissions have survived into 2017. At least there is a YouTube upload of Humphrey Searle’s Oxus, Scena for tenor and orchestra available. Thomas Wilson’s Touchstone: Portrait for orchestra seems to have disappeared without trace. 

Monday, 3 July 2017

Gordon Crosse: Orchestral Music on Lyrita

I was introduced to the music of Gordon Crosse (b.1937) more than 45 years ago. I found a discarded review copy in a second-hand bookshop in Llandudno of the old Argo LP (ZRG-656, re-released on Lyrita SRCD.259, 2007) featuring his impressive choral work Changes. It is a work I have come to appreciate and enjoy. Since 1972, I have heard a fair number of pieces by Crosse and he is certainly a composer who appeals to me. His music is always absorbing and challenging. The four works on this present CD are all essential additions to the composer’s current discography.

For a detailed biography of Gordon Crosse, I refer the reader to the composer’s informative website. However, a few notes will not go amiss.
Gordon Crosse was born in the Lancashire town of Bury on 1 December 1937 (he is therefore 80 years old this year). Over the years, Crosse has combined music composition with an academic career and computer engineering. He studied with the émigré Austrian composer Egon Wellesz, as well as receiving instruction from Goffredo Petrassi in Rome. Crosse’s university appointments include Essex, Birmingham and in the United States at Santa Barbara. He was ‘composer in residence’ at King’s College Cambridge between 1973 and 1975. In 1990, Crosse stopped composing music: during 2007, he started again and is ‘now writing pretty well non-stop.’ His most recent works (2016) include a Sonata for clarinet and piano, an Idyll for clarinet and string quartet, a Concertante (Ceili De) for horn and strings, and a Concertante (On the Shoreline) for recorder and string septet, dedicated to John Turner.

The opening track on this new Lyrita CD is the Crosse’s ‘official’ op.1. The Elegy was composed in 1965. I wrote extensively about this work, its premiere at the Free Trade Hall by the Hallé Orchestra under Maurice Hanford, and its 1980 recording, on MusicWeb International in 2015.  The present recording (made during the 9 September 1965 Proms concert) by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Norman del Mar is an equally good performance, with just a little bit of crackle and background/audience noise. But that is no real problem (for me): it is good to have another version of this well-written and often lyrical piece.
Paul Conway (liner notes) is correct in citing The Times critic as stating that the Elegy is an ‘excellent introduction to his [Crosse’s] music…’ I hold to my opinion presented in my MWI essay, that ‘listening to this piece fifty years after the Prom performance discloses a piece of music that, despite its serial nature, is approachable, moving and has the nature of a ‘genuine elegy’’. 

On 3 July 1968, Crosse’s Concerto for Chamber Orchestra, op.8 was given its first performance at the Cheltenham Festival. The Budapest Symphony Orchestra was conducted by György Lehel. It is a recording of this concert that is included in this CD. The Concerto, which was composed in 1962, is presented in three short movements. One of the features of this work is the use of a motif derived from the chimes of Magdalen College, Oxford: this can be heard quoted or alluded to throughout the Concerto. The liner notes point out that the piece was originally written for a student orchestra in Oxford. The scoring of this work is lightweight, which allows the Crosse to create an ‘impression of lightness, clarity and precision.’
The Concerto for Chamber Orchestra is an immediately accessible work, even to listeners who eschew modernism in their normal musical itineraries. Paul Conway cites Stephen Walsh’s opinion (Tempo Autumn 1968) that the Concerto’s ‘…structure is so extremely ingenious that its spontaneous, brilliant sound comes as something of a surprise.’

The Concertino, op.15 was composed more than fifty years ago (1965) yet it retains all its freshness. Scored for flute, oboe (and cor anglais), clarinet and viola, it was premiered at the University of Aberdeen on 26 October 1965. It was written in the July and August of that year as a BBC commission. Crosse’s website notes that there was a rather ropey ‘off air’ recording made of this performance. Clearly, (assuming we are talking about the same recording) Lyrita’s sound engineers have done some outstanding work on these tracks. There are some background sounds and noises off, but the clarity of the instrumentation is never in doubt.
The structure of this work is six very short ‘variation’ movements where the opening ‘Chorale I’ presents the musical material which is then developed through a series of two further ‘chorales’ two ‘Sonatinas’ and the middle section, ‘Variations’, which is really a set of variations within a set of variations!  Conway writes that the work is imbued with ‘a distinctly English melancholy’ and suggests that it is one of the most attractive of Crosse’s early scores.  The listener will be impressed by the economy of scoring, the occasional, almost romantic outbursts, and the overall lyricism of this Concertino. The work was dedicated to the Melos Ensemble, who provide an exceptional performance in this recording of the premiere.

The major event on this CD is the Violin Concerto No.2, op.26 which was written in 1969. This is a large, multi-layered work that explores a wide variety of musical styles and soundscapes.
The concerto was a commission from the Oxford Subscription Concerts for their 50th anniversary season. It was premiered on 29 January 1970, by the same artists that play on this present CD. (This present version was recorded at the Proms on 7 September 1970)
I was fascinated to read that the formal structure of this work was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire. In this book (I have not read it) a lyrical poem ‘is subjected to an elaborate and grotesque misreading by its editor, whose notes [commentary] provide the narrative vehicle of the book.’ Apart from this formal structure, the Concerto derives no programme from the book. Some of the music in this work was culled from an opera Crosse was composing at that time: The Story of Vasco.
Two important things to note about this work. Firstly, although Crosse uses a large orchestra, there is a chamber music texture to much of the concerto. There is a huge battery of percussion. The composer uses his resources with great variety but in a sparing manner. Typically, the soloist is not pitted against the orchestra, but is ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals.
Secondly, Leslie East (British Music Now, ed. Foreman, Lewis, 1975) has summed up the overall effect of the work: ‘the bipartite Concerto presents dramatic opposition of different elements or styles on various levels: unassertive first part against aggressive second…’ Other ‘oppositions’ include ‘lyrical’ versus ‘bravura’, ‘balance of expounded themes’ against ‘motivic manipulation’ and ‘stasis’ as opposed to ‘dynamism.’ For example, in the last movement, there is a ‘romantic’ outburst from the full orchestra that seems to nod to Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony.
Paul Conway provides a detailed analysis of the work which bears reading: I will not repeat it here. However, one important event occurs in the dynamic and largely violent second movement. After a ‘savage, bitter climax’ an ‘epilogue’ follows. This is evolved from a chanson by the Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem (1410?/25-1497). At one point this is quoted in its original harmonisation. It makes a striking contrast, which seems to sum up the diversity of this work that explores both serial extravagance with medieval ‘parody.’
I could understand some listeners not enjoying this powerful, modernist work, yet, it seems to me that it is approachable within the context of its time. Criticism has been made of the work’s lack of direction and the exaggerated ‘stylistic diversity.’ This did not appear to me a problem. I particularly enjoyed the huge disparity of styles, the colourful orchestration and the general ability of the composer to hold my attention over a half hour period. It is, I believe, one of Gordon Crosse’s great works.

This CD is another splendid example of Lyrita Recorded Edition’s partnership with the BBC. Three important works by Gordon Crosse are presented here for the first time on CD.  The Elegy was released (1980) on the Oxford University Press record label (OUP203) by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Roderick Brydon. Other works on this deleted LP include Crosse’s Symphony No. 1, op.13a and Dreamsongs, op.43. 

The liner notes are written by Paul Conway and include an essay length biography and appreciation of the composer. The programme notes are up to Conway’s usual high standard and make essential reading before and after hearing Crosse’s music. 

There is much of Gordon Crosse’s catalogue of music to explore. I imagine that there plenty recordings in the BBC archives that can be exhumed. I look forward to many more offerings form Lyrita of this composer and many others who have been neglected for so long.

Track Listing:
Gordon CROSSE (b.1937)
Elegy for small orchestra, op.1 (1960)
Concerto for chamber orchestra, op.8 (1962)
Concertino, op.16 (1965)
Violin Concerto No.2, op.26 (1969)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Norman Del Mar (Elegy, op.1); Budapest Symphony Orchestra/György Lehel (Concerto, op.8); Melos Ensemble: Richard Adeney (flute), Peter Graeme (oboe), Gervase de Peyer (clarinet) and Cecil Aronowitz (viola) (Concertino, op.16); Manoug Parikian (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis (Violin Concerto, op.26)
Rec. BBC Broadcast 9 September 1965 (Elegy, op.1); BBC Broadcast 3 July 1968 (Concerto, op.8); BBC Broadcast 26 October 1965 (Concertino, op.16); BBC Broadcast 7 September 1970 (Violin Concerto, op.26)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Friday, 30 June 2017

Carey Blyton: Suite Cinque Port (1962) – some more information.

A few days ago, I posted a short appreciation of Carey Blyton’s (1932-2002) splendid Suite: Cinque Port. I noted that it was first performed on 31 January 1962 at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.
I have since discovered a little bit more about this premiere. At that time, the Hallé had a series of public orchestral rehearsals which were sponsored by the Society for the Promotion of New Music (founded in London, 1943). The ‘rehearsal’ was held at the Free Trade Hall, which at that time was the home of the Hallé Orchestra. It was one of a series of four concerts, sponsored by Associated Redifussion (1954-1968) which included three in Manchester and one in London.

The Times (1 February 1962) reported that a ‘good crowd’ had turned out on a Wednesday evening to hear two unperformed works by British composers, both under the age of thirty.
The way the evening worked was that the music was rehearsed for about an hour and a half by the orchestra under the conductor, Maurice Handford at ‘sight’ from the full score and parts. After a short interval, the two compositions were given a ‘formal’ performance. Afterwards, the audience discussed each work, which resulted in an exchange that exhibited ‘forthrightness and volubility.’ The chairman of these ‘discussions’ was the The Times music critic William Mann,

The major work at the rehearsal on 31 January was David Ellis’s (b.1937) Violin Concerto, op.22 which had been composed between 1958 and 1960. The soloist was the current leader of the Halle Orchestra, Martin Milner (1928-2000).

The Times understood Carey Blyton’s Suite: Cinque Port as being ‘direct and unpretentious light music, simply and capably laid out.’ It was ‘pleasant to listen to…and made a good foil to the [Ellis] violin concerto.’  
The ‘light-hearted’ nature of Carey Blyton’s Suite was noted by J.H. Elliot writing for the Manchester Guardian (1 February 1962). He enjoyed ‘…the cheerfulness which breaks in so readily…’ He notes that two of the movements were proclaimed to be parodies: he felt that they had little sting. Elliot considered that like ‘many other satirical pages, they tend to become quite attractive examples of the things that they set out to guy.’

I will present more details about David Ellis’s Violin Concerto and the other three concerts in a subsequent post. 

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Frederick Delius & Edward Elgar's String Quartets on NAXOS

For listeners used to Frederick Delius’ potboilers such as On hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, The Walk to the Paradise Garden and Summer Night on the River, the change in style made by the composer during the First World War could be surprising. During this period, he turned his mind to ‘classical’ forms and produced a Concerto for violin, one for violin and cello, a Cello Sonata and the present String Quartet.

Delius had experimented with string quartet form in 1888 and later in 1892-3: neither of these works have survived, save in fragments. There may be evidence of a third example.  It is not the forum to examine the ‘textual’ history of the present E minor quartet, save in outline. The original version of this work had only three movements (first, third and fourth) and was dated ‘Spring 1916’. It was premiered at the Aeolian Hall, London on 17 November 1916 by the London String Quartet. 
Unsatisfied with the quartet, Delius added an extra movement (the second, ‘scherzo’, in the final recension). This was based on music culled from his earlier (1888) quartet.  He also revised the first and last movements as well as rewriting ‘Late Swallows’.

The first four tracks on this CD present the Quartet in its received, i.e. published form. The four movements are: 1. With animation, 2. Quick and lightly, 3. Late Swallows (Slow and wistfully) and 4. Very quick and vigorously.
The first movement is impressionistic, with rapidly changing harmonies and the continual development of brief melodic fragments. It is enchanting in its effect. The ‘scherzo’ is like ‘a Mendelssohnian nocturne, whose gossamer-like threads are spun rapidly across the ensemble with an engagingly playful sense of rhythmic asymmetry.’ This is balanced by a wistful song-like tune in the ‘trio’.  ‘Late Swallows’ has been described by Eric Fenby as ‘a beautiful autumnal soliloquy in sound…conjured up from thoughts of the swallows darting to and fro from the eaves of the studios in Grez.’ Frederick and Jelka Delius had returned to their home in January 1915, after having been evacuated from the village earlier in the war. Several critics have surmised that the final movement is of poorer quality than the first three: contrariwise, it is possible to consider that it provides a vigorous contrast to the pensive ‘swallow’ music. 

The ‘added-value’ of this CD is the two movements from the original version of the String Quartet, realised by Daniel Grimley. The opening movement has been ‘reassembled’ from sketches and an incomplete set of string parts.  Differences to note include the more robust and concentrated scoring, which I found equally satisfying to the ‘received version’. The original ‘Late Swallows’ appears to be virtually a ‘new’ Delian work. The opening recalls ‘larks ascending’ and ‘moorland meditations’, and the middle section surely nods to Mahler. It is a rare and beautiful discovery that makes the disc cheap at twice the price! The revisions to the finale have not been included in this recording as these are not perceived to be significant.
The Villiers Quartet play Delius’s String Quartet and the additional movements with magical and nuanced effect.

We are on safer historical ground with the String Quartet in E minor, op.83 (1918) by Edward Elgar. Yet even here, the composer had moved away from the certainties of the works composed in the Victorian and Edwardian years. And, after a string of patriotic works devised during the Great War, it is instructive to see the him compose a series of ‘absolute’ works including the Violin Sonata in E minor, op.82, the Piano Quartet in A minor, op.84, the present Quartet and the more ambitious and ubiquitous Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85.

The Quartet and the Piano Quintet in A minor (1918-19) were completed whilst Edward and his wife Alice were renting Brinkwells, a cottage close to Fittleworth, Sussex. It was hidden in deep woodland.  Elgar was coming to terms with the fact musical style had moved on: no longer was he one of Europe’s ‘advanced’ composers. The music of Stravinsky, Ravel and Schoenberg was beginning to dominate the concert hall and recital room.
In a previous review of this work (Hyperion CDA67857) I wrote that Elgar ‘…seems to be in search of something intangible: it may well be a lost muse or an attempt at finding an ‘explanation’ for some event in the past.’ It is a view I still hold.
The three movements of this quartet are hugely contrasting, yet there is also a strong sense of underlying unity. The first movement is diverse in its deployment of emotion.  There is a balance between ‘austerity’ and ‘nostalgia.’ The second movement, ‘Piacevole [agreeable, pleasant] (poco andante)’ is reflective and introspective, maybe summing up the composers concerns about his wife’s frailness, his ‘outdated’ music and the passing of the security of the Edwardian age. It was one of Alice’s favourite works, and was played at her funeral in 1920. This movement has been described as an ‘intermezzo’, however I feel that this music explores much deeper sentiments.
The finale opens with an uneasy march-like theme which is followed by the more relaxed second subject, signed to be played ‘dolce.’ The dynamism of this movement is never in doubt. The spectacular coda, ‘con fuoco’ (with fire) is quite simply stunning. It brings this great string quartet to a breathless conclusion.  The liner notes sum up the last bars well: there is no time left for retrospection, merely the gruff slamming of the door.’
Elgar’s String Quartet was given its first public performance at the Wigmore Hall, London on 21 May 1919,

Both works have been recorded several times by a variety of prominent ensembles (Britten String Quartet, London String Quartet etc.). The present disc is sympathetically played, with the Villiers Quartet providing a sensitive and learned reading of both works. 
The liner notes by Daniel Grimley are excellent and provide a detailed background and analysis of the Delius and Elgar Quartets.
As noted above, the discovery here is the early version of ‘Late Swallows.’ It deserves its own unique place in the quartet repertoire. 

Track Listing:
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) String Quartet in E minor (1917)
Two Movements from the original version (1916/2016) (reassembled by Daniel GRIMLEY)
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) String Quartet in E minor, op.83 (1918) Villiers Quartet: James Dickenson (violin), Tamaki Higashi (violin), Carmen Flores (viola) and Nicholas Stringfellow (cello)
NAXOS 8.573586 

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Carey Blyton: Suite Cinque Port (1962)

There has only ever been one recording made of Carey Blyton’s (1932-2002) Suite: Cinque Port. It is a work that deserves to be well-known and should easily find a regular slot on Classic FM.
These historic towns are an association of Kentish and Sussex Channel ports dating back more than 1000 years. Originally, designed to give service to the English (as it was then) Crown, it gained several privileges. Nowadays, the raison d’etre is more to promote the ‘public awareness of the proud history and seafaring traditions of communities which played a key role in the early development of Great Britain as a naval and economic superpower.’ Over the years, the Warden of the Cinque Ports has been appointed by the Crown. Perhaps the most famous in recent years has been Winston Churchill (1941-65) and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1978-2002). The present warden is Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Boyce KG GCB OBE DL who was appointed in 2004. His official residence is Walmer Castle, near Deal.  The five Cinque Ports are Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich.

The present Suite has been described as ‘music for an opera’ which was never completed, however, these five miniature tone poems are a splendid evocation of an ancient British tradition Each movement of this work is set in one of the harbour towns which are not noted in the score.  The five short movements are 1. Prelude: Daybreak over the Harbour; 2. Song 1: Captain Bowsprit’s Blues; 3. Interlude: The Beach—Midwinter; 4. Song 2: The Sea-dog’s Song; 5. Postlude: Dusk over the Harbour.
'Cinque Port'.was composed some 60 years ago during the late 1950s. It was first performed on 31 January 1962 at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester by the Halle Orchestra conducted by Maurice Handford.

The work opens with some quiet, misty scoring, before the hustle and bustle of the day begins. Not quite as lively as Walton’s Portsmouth Point, but the muted brass give a certain spice to the scoring. The movement closes with a short march. ‘Captain Bowsprit’s Blues’ begins conventionally enough with a ‘nautical’ tune played on the piccolo, but after some hymn-like chords, soon develops into a lugubrious blues number, complete with piano. The third section, ‘The Beach-Midwinter’ is quietly impressionistic in its imagery. Gone are the holidaymakers and their paraphernalia: there are no Mr Punch or candyfloss. The mood is Britten-esque in its depiction of a cold, grey sea.  ‘The Sea-Dog’s Song’ is more conventional in its presentation of a shanty-like song. There are some lovely ‘wrong notes’ played by the flutes.  The ‘Postlude’ presents a thoughtful view of the sea as dusk begins to close in. One feels that the mood has more to do with the watcher rather than the seascape. The ‘cocktail’ piano maybe just hints at a warm hotel lounge awaiting their return. The orchestration is extremely subtle, with light, shadow, waves and breeze all being imagined.

A review (14 February 1962) appearing in the Kentish Times suggested that the Suite “…contains self-assured music’ however it was felt (and I agree) that ‘… If there is a fault, it lies in the brevity of some sections’ The reviewer was especially impressed by the ‘sensitive scoring of the Interlude… [in which] one realises Blyton can handle an orchestra and that his effects “come off”.  At the end of the concert the composer, ‘Mr Blyton took an enthusiastic call…’

The work was released on Dutton Epoch, CDLX 7283, played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland.  

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Phyllis Tate: London Fields Suite (1958)

Following on from my ‘Twenty Pieces of Music Evoking London’ post, I make no apology for re-presenting this short essay about Phyllis Tate’s ‘London Fields’ Suite for orchestra. It remains one of my favourite pieces of light music. I have reviewed a few facts, made several small changes and provided a link to YouTube. 

It is unfortunate that Phyllis Tate (1911-87) is best known these days –where she is known at all- for her ‘light music’ suite ‘London Fields.’ The 2008 release from Lyrita (SRCD 214) does not bill this music as ‘light’ –it simply describes it as one of the contents of a ‘Box of Delights.’ This is not the place to examine Tate’s catalogue, but suffice to say that she wrote a fair number of ‘serious’ works – including an opera, The Lodger, a Saxophone Concerto and a Sonata for clarinet and cello. Other works that could be considered as belonging to the ‘light’ genre include Songs Without Words for orchestra, Illustrations (1969) for brass band and the Lyric Suite for piano duet.

‘London Fields’ was commissioned for the BBC Light Music Festival of 1958 and was duly heard alongside new works by John Addison, Geoffrey Bush, Hubert Clifford, Alun Hoddinott and Iain Hamilton. It is a concert I am minded to investigate further in a subsequent post.

There are four movements in this Suite which lasts for some 13 minutes: 1. Springtime in Kew, 2. The Maze at Hampton Court, 3. St James’s Park – a lakeside reverie and 4. Hampstead Heath –rondo for roundabouts.
The opening movement succeeds in making the listener imagine a brisk walk in Kew on a lovely May morning – crocuses and daffodils, perhaps. There is an air of optimism from the first note to the last as the armchair traveller explores in their mind this stunning garden – with maybe the odd glimpse of the Thames.
In the ‘scherzo’ Tate departs from the ‘Eric Coates-ian’ model that infuses this Suite – here is a playful game, children scampering around Hampton Court maze desperately trying to get out before their friends do. She makes use of a ‘whirlwind xylophone solo’ which reminded Lewis Foreman of images of the frenetic ‘Keystone Cops’ romping through Hampton Court Maze.
The slow movement is the loveliest part of this suite. For anyone who has wandered beside the lake in St James’s Park – either with their lover, or at least dreaming of them, it is a perfect evocation. Is it a ‘misty summer dawn’ or a warm spring evening that the oboe hints at? There is a slightly livelier middle section that suggests a brief interlude watching the swans and the ducks on the lake. The main theme returns and brings this movement to a close in a heat haze - with a final ‘quack’ from one of the ducks!
The last movement, ‘Hampstead Heath’ is subtitled a ‘Rondo for Roundabouts’ which is written in waltz time. Ketèlbey who wrote a piece called ‘Appy ‘Ampstead as a part of his Cockney Suite which may be relevant to this movement.  It is an enjoyable caper that brings the work to a fitting close. And lastly, it does not take much imagination to detect some of the wit and enthusiasm of Malcolm Arnold’s more ‘popular’ tunes.

The reviewer in the Musical Times (August 1958) noted that ‘despite a slender output, [Miss Tate] has won distinction in the realm of ‘serious’ music, and I was interested to hear how she would fare when producing a work “whose first and conscious aim” was “to please and entertain.” She fared well.’ He suggested that parts of the Suite owed a little too much to Eric Coates. However, he felt that it left ‘a pleasing impression, especially the middle two movements…’
My own impression of this Suite is of a well-structured, finely-scored piece that is fully able to suggest to the imagination the pictures that the titles of each movement is meant to suggest. This is truly light music at its best.

Hear Phyllis Tate’s ‘London Fields’ played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth on Box of Delights Lyrita SRCD 214. Other composers represented on this CD include Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Granville Bantock and Elisabeth Lutyens. Tate’s Suite has been conveniently loaded onto YouTube.

There is also a version on White Line CDs (CDWHL2138) played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland. This disc includes other ‘London inspired’ music by Paul Lewis, Philip Lane, David Watts, Haydn Wood, Angela Morley and Christopher Gunning. 

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Enigmas: Solo Piano and chamber works

I enjoyed Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations, ‘dished up’ by the composer himself for piano. I have bashed my way through ‘Nimrod’ on the piano on several occasions, but the rest of the score is largely beyond my Grade 6½. Arguments could go either way about the ‘validity’ or ‘need’ for this transcription. I agree with the liner notes that this version allows the listener to concentrate on the musical structure of these variations without the ‘hindrance’ of the masterly orchestration. The work can be approached with a ‘fresh intimacy.’ It will never supplant the orchestral version, but it is a pleasure to hear. It is splendidly played here by Elspeth Wylie.

Kenneth Leighton’s Elegy for cello and pianoforte, op.5 is an early work, dating from 1950 and was part of a discarded Viola Sonata (1949). It was written when the composer was only 21 years old. This was before the he studied with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome and began to assimilate Bergian serialism, neo-classicism and some post-Weberian techniques. The Elegy is characterised by a pastoral mood, which may have been influenced by Herbert Howells, Gerald Finzi or RVW. I have noted before that this work does not use folk-song and certainly is not a rustic ramble. The music is introspective and consistently lyrical in mood.

It is a pity that the liner notes do not give a date for York Bowen’s romantic Sonata for flute and piano, op.120. The listener needs understand that this is a post-Second World War work composed in 1946. It is unashamedly romantic in effect. Clearly, this was not the direction that music was going in at that time, and one can begin to understand why it long-remained un-played. Bowen’s career straddled much musical history: he was sixteen when Elgar premiered his Enigma Variations and Elvis Presley was at No.1 in the UK charts on the day he died. It is good that this composer, once disparagingly dubbed the ‘English Rachmaninov’, is appreciated in our musically diverse era.
I particularly enjoyed the ‘pastoral’ mood of the slow movement which may or may not be English in inspiration. The general feel of this work is coloured by Mediterranean hues. It was dedicated to the flautist Gareth Morris (1920-2007).

Nicholas Sackman (b.1950) is an unknown name to me. I point the reader to the Wikipedia article for further information. Unfortunately, the link to the chronological list of his works is no longer working: neither is a link to his personal webpage. The present Folio I is a set of six short piano pieces that were composed for his ‘teenage children.’ It includes imaginary titles such as ‘Switchback’, ‘Jumping Jack’ and ‘Rum Baba’. They are rather fun to listen to and are, as the liner notes suggest, ‘captivating’ in effect.

The Two Sonnets by William Alabaster, op.87 (1955) for mezzo-soprano, viola and piano are beautifully and sensitively performed by Catherine Backhouse, Alexa Beattie and Elspeth Wylie. Mention should be made that Alabaster (1567-1640) was an English poet, playwright, and religious writer. Converted to Catholicism, he was imprisoned for his beliefs and reverted to Anglicanism. Listening to these beautiful songs, it is clear that Rubbra, a deeply religious man, had a great sympathy for these two poems.

As noted above, I felt that the liner notes could have given the dates of each work. I know that this information is usually available via a ‘quick’ web-search. (In the case of the Sackman, even that option failed me). Other than that, they provide a helpful introduction to each work. They include a detailed presentation of the Enigma dedications and the text for the Alabaster poem. 

The performance is superb in this eclectic selection of music. Elspeth Wylie plays for all the pieces. Violist Alexa Beattie makes a fine contribution to the Rubbra. I felt that the cellist, Hetti Price engaged well with the Kenneth Leighton and Claire Overbury gave an enchanting performance of the Bowen Flute Sonata. They are my two favourite numbers on the wide-ranging and thoroughly agreeable CD.

Track Listing:
Enigmas: Solo Piano and chamber works
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Variations on an Original Theme, op.36 (Enigma) (1898-99): composer’s version for solo piano (1899)
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) Elegy for cello and pianoforte, op.5 (1950)
Edwin York BOWEN (1884-1961) Sonata for flute and piano, op.120 (1946)
Nicholas SACKMAN (b.1950) Folio 1 [for piano] (?)]
Edmund RUBBRA (Two Sonnets by William Alabaster, op.87 (1955)
Elspeth Wyllie (piano), Hetti Price (cello), Claire Overbury (flute), Catherine Backhouse (mezzo-soprano) and Alexa Beattie (viola)
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