Sunday, 26 March 2017

Kenneth Leighton: The Complete Organ Works Volume 2-3

This new 3-CD set from Resonus includes the previously released Volumes 1 and 2 of Kenneth Leighton’s Complete Organ Works. To this has been added a final Volume 3, which I understand has not been issued separately. I have previously reviewed Volume 1 for MusicWeb International, so will not repeat myself in these comments. I was unable to find any appraisal of Volume 2 listed on MWI.

The second CD gets off to a great start. The ‘Festival Fanfare’ was composed for the 1968 West Riding Cathedrals Festival held at Sheffield. The event included the ‘massed choirs’ of Sheffield, Bradford and Wakefield Cathedrals and was held during 1 and 2 November. Interestingly, the splendid cathedral of Ripon was in the West Riding at that time, before the reckless county boundary changes of 1974: I wonder why they were not invited?
The ‘Fanfare’ was personally requested by Sheffield organist Graham Matthews. It lasts for about six minutes and is in Leighton’s usual jubilant, flamboyant, dance-inspired style, ideal for ceremonial music. Making use of limited musical material it is well-structured, and technically challenging. ‘Festival Fanfare’ was premiered by Matthews (other sources suggest it was Percy Saunders) at the Festival Evensong and again at a concert, both in Sheffield Cathedral.

Kenneth Leighton insisted that ‘Et Resurrexit’ (Theme, Fantasy and Fugue) op.49 is ‘…purely abstract in design, [however] the work attempts to give musical expression to the individual’s struggle for belief in the miracle of the resurrection…’ The massive canvas is developed from a minimum of musical material. Despite the work’s formal division into three movements, it is easier to understand as a kind of continuous variation or constant transformation. The mood of the work is changeable, balancing emotions that are deeply felt, moving and often euphoric. It places considerable technical demands on the organist, especially in using the colours available through registration, as well as simply playing the notes. It is dedicated to Robert Munns who gave the premiere on 16 November on the organ of Brompton Parish Church, London.

‘These are Thy Wonders (A Song of Renewal)’, op.84 was commissioned by the tenor Neil Mackie to celebrate the 70th birthday of Peter Pears in 1980. It is a setting of the poem ‘The Flower’ by George Herbert.  I am never quite sure how well solo ‘song’ works with an organ. In this case, I guess Leighton has created a through-composed work of considerable lyricism and ‘luminosity’ which gives an effective balance to voice and instrument. It is brilliantly sung on this CD by Nicky Spence. The work was first performed in the beautiful St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney on 21 June 1981. This was 364 days after Pears’ actual 70th birthday.  

The short ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ was written the year before the composer died. It was commissioned for the Dunfermline Abbey Festival of 1987 and was first performed there on 21 June by the Abbey organist, Andrew Armstrong.  Although this finely-wrought work is entitled a ‘prelude’ it is really a meditation on the ancient plainsong tune for Whitsunday. The music follows the text in a restrained manner, gently acknowledging references to the ‘living fire’, God’s promise to instruct his flock, the perils for which we need God’s protection and the security of His divine love.

I remember buying a copy of the sheet music of Leighton’s ‘Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia’, op.41 in Biggar’s music shop in Glasgow around 1975. It was issued in the buff coloured Novello International Series of Contemporary Organ Music edition. It just appealed to me. I never could play it, and never will play it, but it seemed like a good investment: I still have it in my music library. The work was commissioned by Bryan Hesford of Brecon Cathedral, and was first performed by him in Norwich Cathedral on 24 October 1963.
Lasting for more than 20 minutes it is based on the development of a simple melodic motif which is expressed in the opening bars of the Prelude. The Scherzo is essentially a baroque gigue that juxtaposes edgy music with something that is inherently playful. The Passacaglia, which is based on a 12-note theme creates a much darker and more intense mood than the preceding scherzo. The theme is used, twisted and then turned back on itself. The entire work is a clever balance of largely traditional contrapuntal devices but also utilises a more contemporary harmonic language. The overall impression is of a work of consummate skill, written by a composer who fully understands all the possibilities of the medium. It is hard to believe that this was his first major work for the genre.  I agree with Arthur Milner (Musical Opinion, October 1964) that this is ‘the finest composition for organ by an English composer of the last thirty years.’ For me, it is Leighton’s organ masterwork.

The third disc opens with Kenneth Leighton’s most ‘popular’ organ work ‘Paean’ (1966) with five recordings currently listed in the Arkiv catalogue, and many more in the lists of deleted LPs, cassettes and CDs.  It is a justifiably popular piece that is full of rhythmic energy, extrovert gestures and surprising lyricism. It celebrates perfectly the thanksgiving (and possibly triumph) suggested by the title.  It was commissioned by Oxford University Press (OUP) for the second volume of their successful Modern Organ Music series (Red Cover). The first performance was given at the Royal Festival Hall on 25 January 1967 by Simon Preston. This was part of a celebration of 40 years of the Organ Club.

OUP’s competitors Novello commissioned the ‘Elegy’ as one of the numbers included in their Music Before Service album, issued in 1965. This was the second of Leighton’s organ pieces and was completed in April 1965. This work is composed in an ‘arch’ form, beginning and ending quietly, with a considerable climax in the middle. Although the ‘Elegy’ is approachable and completely satisfying, it is hardly the sort of piece one expects to hear at St Swithuns-on-Irwell on a Sunday morning before 1662 Prayer Book Matins.

The short Ode was yet another commission for an album of organ music: A Second Album of Preludes and Interludes-Six Pieces by Contemporary British Composers published by OUP in 1979.  The music is an exercise in the building up of tension and increasing dynamics on a very limited canvas. The work ends, conventionally, with a powerful C major chord.

If I am honest, Fantasy on a Chorale (Es ist genug), op.80 (1979) just does not do it for me. I feel the combination of violin and organ is not judicious. It is the only piece where the composer has attempted this instrumentation. The chorale appeared in Bach’s cantata ‘O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort,’ BWV 60. Enthusiasts of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto will recall the composer’s use of the tune in his celebrated Violin Concerto.
The Fantasy is written in a single continuous movement, albeit divided into five sections. I find that it is typically uninspiring from the first note to the last. At 26 minutes in duration it seems just a wee bit too long. I am sure that other listeners will heartily disagree with me.  One feels guilty in not enjoying or appreciating this piece, as it was written ‘in memoriam’ for Leighton’s father. The Fantasy was commissioned by the American violinist Jean Harmon and was first performed in the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC on 4 May 1980.

The short chorale prelude ‘Rockingham’ is a beautiful, restrained sicilaino-like meditation on the well-loved hymn tune used with the words ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’. It first appeared in the collection Chorale Preludes on English Tunes published by OUP c.1977.

The relatively ‘easy to play’ Fanfare was included in Volume 1 of  OUPs Easy Modern Organ Music published in 1967. Peter Hardwick in his British Organ Music (2003) suggests that the work has ‘an engaging pervasive brightness and rhythmic forward thrust’ which is achieved by the ‘symmetrical phrases that begin on weak beats.’ It is certainly a good place for aspiring organists to begin their study of Kenneth Leighton’s organ music.

‘Veni Redemptor’ (A Celebration), op.93 is based on the eponymous chant published in the Sarum Antiphoner. The piece was written for the North Wales International Music Festival at St. Asaph in 1985, and was first heard there on 20 September of that year. It was performed by the dedicatee John Scott (1956-2015). The composer’s own words sum up the powerful effect of this music: ‘[It is] a celebration of Christmas which gives expression to awe and majesty as well as to joy and brightness.’ From its quiet opening, followed by a skittish section, then building up to a glorious peroration, this is a perfectly constructed piece of organ music.

The final work on this third CD, ‘De Profundis’, op.76, is not for organ: it is the only piece that Kenneth Leighton composed for the harpsichord. It was written during August 1977, and had its premiere on 7 June 1978 in that great repository of keyboard instruments, the St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh. The composer was the soloist.
Leighton has described the work as ‘…a set of constant variations…it tries to use for the most part the lyrical and contrapuntal potentialities of the harpsichord…’ The liner notes suggest that ‘De Profundis’ was composed at a time of unhappiness for Leighton. This mood permeates much of the work, yet the vibrant rhythms of some of the faster sections seem to be positive, whilst the darker moments certainly suggest sadness. I must admit that I found the piece a little hard going: it is not my favourite work by the composer. On the other hand, it is good that it has been given this splendid recording.
The work was crafted to be played on a historic instrument. In the present recording, Stephen Farr uses a Pascal Taskin instrument built in 1769, which is now housed in the St Cecilia’s Hall. This was presumably loaned to St George’s Church, Chesterton, Cambridge from St Cecilia’s Hall (see recording details) for this performance.

The liner notes, written by Adam Binks, who is currently writing the first biography of Kenneth Leighton, are near-dissertation length, and give a splendid overview of the composer and his organ music. Each piece is discussed in some detail. Biographical information is given about the performers. Organ specifications are included for all three instruments: the 1992 Rieger Organ at St Giles Cathedral, the Klais Organ at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham and the Henry Willis instrument in St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London. The text of ‘These are thy wonders’ by George Herbert is printed in full. 

The performance of all this music is ideal. I thoroughly enjoyed most pieces (see above for caveats) and felt that Stephen Farr, John Butt, Chloë Hanslip (violin) and Nick Spence (tenor) have done a splendid job in performing this important repertoire. Clearly, the lion’s share of these three CDs has fallen to Stephen Farr. It is a stunning achievement. The sound quality of the recording is perfect: it makes the listener feel they are present at the venues. No better compliment can be paid.

Track Listings:
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
CD2
Festival Fanfare (1968)
Et Resurrexit (Theme, Fantasy and Fugue) op.49 (1966)
These are Thy Wonders (A Song of Renewal), op.84 (1981)
Veni Creator Spiritus (1987)
Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia, op.41 (1963)
Nicky Spence (tenor, These are Thy Wonders), Stephen Farr (organ)
Rec. The Klais Organ of Symphony Hall, Birmingham 27-28 August 2014
CD3
Paean (1966)
Elegy (1965)
Ode (1977)
Fantasy on a Choral (Es ist genug) for violin and organ, op.80 (1979) [26:03]
Rockingham (1975)
Fanfare (1966)
Veni Redemptor (A Celebration) op.93 (1985)
Improvisations ‘De Profundis’, op.76 (1977)
Rec. St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh on 20 April 2016, The Henry Willis Organ of St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London, (Fantasy) on 1 October 2015, St George’s Church, Chesterton, Cambridge 18 June 2016 (Improvisations)
RESONUS RES10178 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Kenneth Leighton: The Complete Organ Works Volume 1

I originally wrote my review of this CD in 2014. It was published on MusicWeb International on 14 July of that year. This was a review of a download. In recent weeks, I have received a three CD set of the ‘Kenneth Leighton: The Complete Organ Works, which I have reviewed for MWI. For completeness on the blog I have republished the text for Volume 1, with review for Volumes 2 & 3 in a subsequent post. I found no reason to change my views on this present CD. My thoughts in CD2 & 3 will be appear in my next post. 

I do not know the organ works of Kenneth Leighton (apart from the often-performed Paean) and have never heard ‘The Complete Organ Works’ played on the organ of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh by Dennis Townhill (PRCD326) which is the main competition to this new ‘download’ from Resonus.
The twentieth-century produced four major British composers contributing sizable catalogues of music for the organ:  Herbert Howells, William Mathias, Francis Jackson and Kenneth Leighton. Leighton’s organ music is not in the trajectory of Howells, in spite of there being some fingerprints of the elder composer in the pages of these scores. He has looked to Europe for inspiration rather than the organ lofts of English Cathedrals. Paul Hindemith would appear to have an important influence on Leighton’s sound-word: influences from Flor Peeters and Hendrik Andriessen have been remarked on.

Leighton’s first major composition for organ was the ‘Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia’ Op.41 written in 1963. His last work was the ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ which was composed in the year before his death.
The present collection opens with the thought-provoking Six Fantasies on Hymn Tunes, Op.46 and dates from 1975. These are not dry-as-dust ecclesiastical numbers designed to cover up the none-too-hushed conversations of congregations before the minister arrives in the pulpit, but are a fascinating and many-coloured exploration of these relatively four-square, popular hymn tunes. They are full of interest, inventiveness and imagination. 
Also using a hymn tune is the Martyrs: Dialogues on a Scottish Psalm-tune, Op. 73 which is written for organ duet. Interestingly (and mind bogglingly) both performers are required to play pedals in this piece!  It is divided up into three sections and is preceded by a statement of the original hymn-tune. The work proper opens with a dark meditation which builds to a ‘thunderous’ climax. The second section contrasts a double-fugue with toccata-like figuration. It concludes with a ‘gigue-like’ passage followed by a powerful restatement of the tune ‘Martyrs’.
The Improvisation in Memoriam Maurice de Sausmarez uses the familiar arch-structure favoured by Herbert Howells. The composer wrote that this deeply-introverted piece is conceived in ‘... a mood of mourning and protest symbolised in the conflict between lyrical counterpoint, and an ostinato (subject to variation) consisting of three chord clusters which persist throughout the piece. The clusters reach a climax of intensity in a chord containing all the notes of the chromatic scale’.
Kenneth Leighton’s largest achievement for solo organ is his Missa de Gloria (Dublin Festival Mass), Op. 82 which was written in 1980. It is considerably longer than his fine Organ Concerto written some years previously.  The work is divided into six sections which reflect the traditional divisions of the Mass – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. The finale is a toccata based on ‘Ite, missa est’ – ‘Go, the Mass has ended’. Leighton has made use of a plainchant melody derived from the ‘Proper’ for Easter Day in the 12th century Sarum Liturgy in most of the sections of this work.  The composer claimed that it was he first of his work to be ‘almost entirely inspired’ by plainsong.
This is a huge, powerful work that sometimes haunts the same musical world as Messiaen’s earlier organ music.  

This is the first download that I have reviewed. Like the transition that many listeners made some 30 years ago from vinyl to CD, I have had my reservations about the media.  Yet progress is always inevitable.
The present download is available in four different formats – MP3, AAC, FLAC 16-bit and FLAC 24-bit. The latter requires a large amount of data storage with a single album requiring up to 1GB of memory.
One of my big issues with some ‘record’ companies is that the liner-notes are not available for download or cut and paste. Chandos, Hyperion and Naxos all have good access to these important documents on their webpages. Alas, a number of other producers do not provide these as part of the download: certainly, Amazon does not include them in purchases. So I was delighted to find that there is a set of freely available documentation available on the Resonus website as part of this download – including a well-produced ‘booklet/liner notes’ in .pdf format. There are also a number of photos of the artists, the advertising ‘flyer’ and a scan of the ‘cover.’ This allows the listener to evaluate the release before purchase.
Biographical notes are given on the organists Stephen Farr and James Butt. Farr is the main performer on this download and is currently organist at St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge as well as having a busy concert career.
The music is performed on the Rieger Organ in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. This was installed in 1992 and is justly famous. The liner notes give the specification for this impressive three-manual instrument, however there is no history of its concept and construction – for example the effective reuse of two pedal stops from the old Willis organ (1940). All this kind of information would be of profound interest to organ-music enthusiasts. 

I am grateful to be able to explore a new facet of Kenneth Leighton’s music. He is a composer that I have always been able to do business with: his balance of modernism and tradition is ideal. I thoroughly enjoyed this new download from Resonus and look forward to reviewing the second volume in this projected series.  

Track Listings: 
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Six Fantasies on Hymn Tunes, Op. 72 (1975)
Helmsley; Aus der Tiefe (Heinlien); Lumetto: Little canonic variations on
‘Jesus bids us shine’; St Columba (Erin); Veni Emmanuel; Toccata on Hanover
Martyrs: Dialogues on a Scottish Psalm-tune, Op. 73 (1976) for organ duet
Improvisation in Memoriam Maurice de Sausmarez (1969)
Missa de Gloria (Dublin Festival Mass), Op. 82 (1980)
Stephen Farr (organ) John Butt (organ)
Rec. St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh on 9-10 September 2013
Reviewed as download
RESONUS LIMITED RES10134 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Monday, 20 March 2017

Arnold Bax's Violin Sonata: a review by Felix White

I found this splendid (if a little quirky) study of Arnold Bax’s beautiful Violin Sonata No.1 in E (1910-1915, rev.1920/1945) in the Musical News and Herald, January 14 1922. Felix White (1884-1954) was a prolific composer of music in virtually every genre. His name is largely forgotten in 2107.

OF SONATAS, as of eggs, there are many kinds. There is the type in which the composer throws the ample Sonata-cloak over a body with badly nourished limbs on which the meagre flesh hangs but loosely, and its folds do not succeed in hiding the thin bones of what might have been - in better chosen circumstances - perhaps an effective Suite. Clearly a matter for counting every finger it has with your ribs! Then there is the variety where the time-honoured name of Sonata - sometimes used with a qualifying adjective - is retained, and yet no signs of its familiar pattern are discernible. There is the case, too, of the wearer whose normally light, airy step is sadly trammelled by the formal vesture, and is thereby transformed into an
awkward, shambling gait distressing to behold. Lastly, and also, alas! the most frequently met with are the well-meant, perfectly constructed works of MacIddenfifth [1] in every country.

Arnold Bax's first Sonata for Violin and Piano in E (dated March, 1915, and just published by Murdoch, Murdoch and Co.) [2] unmistakably belongs to none of these dismal-sounding types. The formal design is extremely clear and satisfying, while, at the same time, presenting none of those irritating musical sign-posts that often so unnecessarily proclaim to the discerning
listener ‘Look! this is the way we are going!’ A singularly happy instance of this avoidance of formal finger-posts is the manner in which the radiant outburst into E major on p. 14 [3] of this work is devised, at what is - after all - the recapitulation. The principal subject of the first movement - and, indeed, of the whole Sonata - is an ingratiating piano-phrase of, withal, quite modest contour that hovers delicately round the major third of the scale.
Within its two-bar confine is enclosed a concentrated power of emotional expression which I have no hesitation in declaring that few men, living or dead, could surpass.
Here it questions; there it pleads; here it affirms; there it denies. Everywhere an assured power of thematic metamorphosis is strongly evident, nowhere more amazingly so than where what the composer calls his ‘idyllic and serene’ first theme takes on a dancelike shape, and assumes then an air that irresistibly recalls some of those delightfully disreputable trollopy Irish tunes, such as ‘The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, O,’ which Mr. Herbert Hughes [4] has rescued from oblivion.
The second theme is entrusted to the violin, and, in mood, is a little akin to the unforgettable beauty of that long ‘singing’ melody in ‘Dream in Exile,’ [5] which all lovers of Bax have by this time taken to their bosoms. With these two themes, with a little help from a subsidiary episode or two, the composer presents a most varied and attractive movement.
The following Allegro Vivace might well be deemed a Scherzo did not that word usually imply something light or playful in texture. Here - save for a brief while in the middle section - all is dark and menacing, moving along with a sense of furtive haste, which later culminates in a brilliant passage wherein the violin seems to reproduce the wild skirling of bagpipes on some wind-swept heath.

Close inspection of the treatment in certain places here, reveals a little of the influence of Max Reger (who, however turgid and cumbersome his other movements were, nearly always contrived an extremely good Scherzo - often caustically ironic, and sometimes gargoylishly grotesque). A rage appears to seize upon the composer here, and he would seem to exclaim, with the old Elizabethan poet [6]
‘Fly not sparkles from mine eye.
To show my indignation nigh? ...
Better a thousand lives it cost.
Than have brave anger spilt or lost.’

In the third - and last - movement, somewhat of a return is made to the mood of the opening of the work, inasmuch as it begins with yet another version of the initial melody. The general design, however, does not present so many vivid contrasts within itself as does the earlier movement, though beauty - sometimes of an exotic character - holds sway throughout. Two specially notable points may be singled out. One is the second subject, where every violinist who relishes a good tune on the G string will find this craving satisfied; and the other is some particularly subtle handling of piano-colour towards the end. The actual close, in its tranquil exultation, fittingly crowns a work- that will, I feel sure, gradually come to be recognised as one of the outstanding things in British music.
Herbert Spencer [7] was wont to complain that the reviewers of his books did their work by cutting the pages of them and then smelling the paper-knife. That my opinion expressed above is one not lightly arrived at - say, after an hour's run-through with that none-too-
reliant organ, the eye—will I hope be believed when 1 say that before writing this review 1 have played this Sonata through some half-dozen times with a violinist friend, and have heard it twice in public. It is worthy of note that an unusual phenomenon at these two recent public performances was the manner in which members of the audience during the interval were
audibly humming" over the haunting principal theme of the work, for their own private delectation.
A good tribute, this, to the composer's power of invention!
It remains to be added that Messrs. Murdoch have issued the work in a format which reflects great credit on all concerned, though there is a bar left out in the violin part, in the first movement, which will occasion much hesitation and scratching of polls till it is put right.
Felix White. Musical News and Herald, January 14 1922.

Notes:
[1] ‘MacIddenfifth’ is clearly Felix White’s ‘type’ for a pedantic professor of music, who knows how to keep to all the rules, but does not know how to break them.
[2] Arnold Bax’s Sonata of Violin No.1 in E has a complicated history. Michael Cookson on MusicWeb International (7 February 2007) gives a succinct account of the work’s genesis as part of his review of the Naxos recording of the work: ‘On the first disc is the three movement Violin Sonata No.1 in E major that Bax composed between 1910-15 and revised in 1920 and in 1945. It is documented that the Sonata No.1 was inspired by the composer’s infatuation with a Ukrainian girl named Natalia Skarginska. Bax must have been dissatisfied with the second and third movements of the score as Winifred Smith and Myra Hess only performed the first movement at the Steinway Hall, London in 1914. In 1915 Bax wrote new second and third movements. Bax on piano together with violinists Paul Kochanski and Bessie Rawlins performed revised versions of the 1915 score in London but we are not told about the first performance of the 1945 version that is recorded here [Naxos] in a slightly cut form.’ The earliest traced first performance of this last revision was given by Erich Gruenberg (violin) and John McCabe (piano) at The Maltings, Snape on 17 November 1989 at a recording session for Chandos. (Parlett, Catalogue, 1999)
Clearly, Felix White is talking about the 1920 version of this Sonata in his essay.
[3] I think Felix White meant ‘page 12’ of the score. This is where the piano plays ‘Joyous and exuberant’.
[4] Herbert Hughes (1882-1937) was a well-regarded Irish composer, collector of Irish folksongs and music critic.
[5] ‘Dream in Exile,’ was composed during February 1916. It a carried two titles before the present one was settled on: Capriccio and Intermezzo. The work was dedicated ‘affectionately’ to the Tobias Matthay, who was Arnold’s Bax’s first piano teacher. It has been interpreted as ‘a dream of youth’ or a ‘dream of Ireland.’
[6] The quotation is traditionally ascribed to the collaborative Jacobean playwrights, Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) and John Fletcher (1579-1625).  The text is from the drama, The Nice Valour reputedly written by the two men between 1615 and 1625. Scholarship suggests that it may have been written by Thomas Middleton (1580-1627).
[7] Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist and classical Liberal political theorist. Perhaps his literary style was perceived by some as being a little turgid.

Discography:
Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano:
(1) 1920 version: Henry Holst (violin), Frank Merrick (piano). Concert Artist LP: LPA 1099 (m); Revolution LP: RCB 20; Concert Artist/Fidelio TC: ATL-TC-5005; Concert Artist CD: CACD 9022-2 (m)
(2) 1945 version: Erich Gruenberg (violin), John McCabe (piano). Chandos TC: ABTD 1462; CD: CHAN 8845.
(3) 1945 version: Robert Gibbs (violin), Mary Mei-Loc Wu (piano). ASV CD: DCA 1127. 
(4) 1945 version and second and third movements from the 1910 version: Laurence Jackson (violin), Ashley Wass (piano). Naxos CD: 8.557540. (With thanks to the Arnold Bax Website)

Friday, 17 March 2017

Rhona Clarke: A Different Game - works for piano trio

I began my review of this CD with the piano solo Gleann Dá Loch. The title is translated ‘glen of two lochs.’ This work was originally composed in 1995 and revised the following year and was inspired by the ‘landscape of the upper lake at Glendalough located in County Wicklow.’ It is the site of an old monastic settlement. Rhona Clarke has found the musical dichotomy in the landscape itself. There are steep mountains either side of a glistening lake (or lough). It is this that has infused the music. The composer uses a complex pianistic language, that involves chords played at extreme ends of the piano, rapid scalar passages and massive contrast in dynamics. It is a hugely pleasing piece of piano music that certainly achieves its aim of providing a musical impression of this fascinating landscape.

The main event on this CD are three of Rhona Clarke’s Piano Trios. In February 2016, I reviewed the Trio No.2 which was featured on Dancing in Daylight: Contemporary Piano Trios from Ireland (MÉTIER MSV28556). I considered that this was ‘a satisfying composition that balances romance, motor rhythms and neo-classicism.’
The Trio No.2 was composed in 2001 and was revised in 2015. It is written in two short movements. The first opens with gently stated piano chords supporting a ‘romantic’ dialogue between the cello and violin. The mood could hardly be different in second movement. Here the inspiration is Bartok. It is good to come across a modern piece of music that uses fugal constructions as the basis of its musical argument. There is some respite from this fast-moving music with nods back to the sustained opening movement.

The Piano Trio No.3 was written in in 2002 and revised in 2015. It was commissioned as part of the 80th birthday celebrations of the composer James Wilson (1922-2005). I just loved the smooth, jazzy opening of this work. This is signed ‘tenderly’. The temper of the music does change as the movement progresses, with a little more urgency, however the relaxed mood is largely maintained. Once again, Rhona Clarke has created a considerable contrast with the second movement, which is played ‘expectantly.’ This is a million miles away from the ‘smooth’ opening of the work. In fact, Bartokian motor rhythms seem to prevail: or is it the ticking of clock? This is jittery music that becomes distorted and seems to break down. Altogether a splendid piece that balances contrast with a surprising degree of unity, bearing in the mind the disparity of the musical material in each movement.

I always get a wee bit edgy when a composer introduces a tape into their work: I should not have worried. Con Coro, which implies that the work is recorded with a choir or vocal ensemble, is in this case coupled with violin and cello. Clarke has created the ‘vocal’ tape by recording her own voice singing extracts from the plainchant ‘Ubi Caritas’. (Where there is charity…). Where I lose the plot with this piece is the suggestion in the liner notes that it should be played to a blindfolded audience: this allows the individual to concentrate on the music, apparently. It does seem a little ‘long-haired’ as my late father would have said. Surely this dictum would apply to every piece of music ever composed. Yes, I do close my eyes sometimes at a concert, but I also like to watch the performance. Let the listener choose. Apart from this conceit, I thoroughly enjoyed this imaginative and often gorgeous piece of music.

The Piano Trio No.4 ‘A Different Game’ is a ‘different’ can of beans altogether. The most recent of her trios, this makes use of improvisation placed into a ‘sequencing programme’ (I guess this implies a computer programme) that generates much of the material for the Trio. The liner notes do not say who did the improvisations in the first place. Clarke sees this as kind if pre-compositional game.  The opening movement had its genesis in a work titled Forethought which was used as a ‘sound installation’ at an art exhibition. This has been transformed into an exciting, jagged sound which is balanced by minimalistic music with echoes of jazz. I like the idea of the second movement: Clarke states that is it ‘based on the disintegration of a waltz.’ It is exactly what she delivers. The listener music must not expect Palm Court music: it is not Max Jaffa on an ‘off’ day. All this agitation is put on one side in the serene and beautiful ‘slow’ movement. The finale is quite simply bizarre – in a wonderful way. It is a ‘crazed dance’ that makes use of cluster chords, heavy textures and trills. There is even a cuckoo call embedded in here. But this is no First Cuckoo of Spring: Stravinsky’s Rite has nothing on this dance. It is manic. The Piano Trio No.4 was written for the present ensemble.

The final track is the melancholy ‘In Umbra’ for solo cello. Rhona Clarke has deliberately placed this haunting work last in the track-listings forming ‘a kind of contemplative epilogue.’ It is a lovely piece which is always lyrical. It allows considerable interpretive freedom to the cellist. The title can be translated ‘In the Shadow.’ 

A detailed biography of Rhona Clarke can be found on her website; however, a couple of pointers may be of interest. Rhona Clarke is a Dublin born composer (1958). After study at University College, Dublin she completed her Ph. D at Queen’s University, Belfast. As well as her compositions, Clarke lectures in music at St Patrick College, Dublin City University.  She has written in a wide variety of genres, including chamber, orchestral, instrumental and choral. Clarke has successfully made use of electronic music in several her scores.

The liner notes include an appreciation of the composer and her music written by Axel Klein. Rhona Clarke has provided the programme notes for each piece. A short bio is also included as well as information about the Fidelio Trio.
The Fidelio Trio was formed during 1995 and is made up of London-based Irish musicians. They play a wide range of music from the ‘classics’ to newly-commissioned works. Their current CD catalogue features music by Arnold Schoenberg, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Michael Nyman and Judith Weir.
The trio’s playing on this new CD of music by Rhona Clarke is outstanding. Not only are they a hugely proficient ensemble, but are willing to perform solo pieces with equal proficiency. 

This CD explores six imaginative works. Each one is approachable, despite the composer making no concessions to the current craze for insipid minimalism (sub-Einaudi) so often in evidence in contemporary music. She has managed to create an exciting and often challenging personal voice that is always interesting and often quite beautiful. Although Clarke does not explicitly use Irish folk tunes in these works, the numinous atmosphere of the Irish landscape, music and people are never too far away. 

Track Listing:
Rhona CLARKE (b.1958)
Piano Trio No.3 (2002, rev.2015)
Gleann Dá Loch, for piano solo (1995, rev.1996)
Piano Trio No.2 (2001, rev. 2015)
Con Coro, for violin, cello and tape (2011)
Piano Trio No.4 ‘A Different Game’ (2016)
In Umbra, for solo cello (2000, rev. 2016)
The Fidelio Trio: Darragh Morgan (violin), Adi Tal (cello), Mary Dullea (piano)
Rec. Sonic Arts Research Centre, Belfast 22-24 August 2016
MÉTIER msv28561

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Anthony Hedges: Overture – Heigham Sound

In 1968, the Hull-born composer penned a short orchestral piece – Holiday Overture. The work was premiered on the BBC Home Service by the London Studio Orchestra and was subsequently broadcast several times. The composer considered that the overture was too short, and did not make sufficient use of the musical ideas he had created. Ten years later, Hedges completely revised the work and changed the title to ‘Heigham Sound.’ This was partly to avoid confusion with the original work, but also reflected the fact that the composer had recently holidayed in the Norfolk Broads.

Heigham Sound is a well-loved beauty spot that depending on the time of day or season can be ‘bustling or tranquil.’ Anthony Hedges has taken this dichotomy and used it in his overture. The work is conceived in three sections – a slow, thoughtful central trio is framed by two lively sections reflecting the ‘holiday mood.’  The work is really based on a single tune that is developed and varied throughout the entire work. The composer is at pains to point out that this is not programme music as such, but simply reflects the mood of the landscape and riverside at various times of the season. He concedes that the title itself contains a ‘pun’ – it is the musical ‘sound’ that matters most. In fact, the bustling music is probably more appropriate to the popular village of Potter Heigham than the Sound itself.
Paul Conway has noted that the premiere of the Overture was given on 20th January 1979, by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Ashley Lawrence.

To my knowledge, the work has been recorded only once. It was released on the Marco Polo survey of the composer’s music issued on the British Light Music series. (8.223886). Anthony Hedges conducted the RTE Sinfonietta. Other works included on the CD were the Humber Suite, Four Breton Sketches, the Kingston Sketches, a Cantilena, and Four Miniature Dances. The Gramophone reviewed the disc in their April 1998 issue. Andrew Lamb suggested that ‘the lively overture Heigham Sound. This last, commemorating an East Anglia beauty spot, is perhaps the most impressive item here, engagingly contrasting its bustling and tranquil aspects.’

Paul Conway has suggested that the work is the equal to of such British overtures as Portsmouth Point (Walton), Derby Day (Alwyn), Beckus the Dandipratt, (Arnold) and Street Corner (Rawsthorne). If only it had the opportunity of being heard a little more often. 

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Peter Maxwell Davies: Chamber Music on Naxos

I began my review of this CD with the delightful Dances from The Two Fiddlers, arranged for violin and piano. The original work was a short opera written in 1978 for children aged 10 to 14. The libretto concerns two Orcadian fiddlers, Gavin and Storm who are returning home after playing at a wedding. They meet some trolls. Gavin escapes but Storm is taken down into the underworld and commanded to entertain his captors. He is granted a wish that his family will never have to work, but in compensation he remains below ground for more years than he imagined. Like Rip Van Winkle, he reappears many years later, as if nothing had happened. Alas, the world has changed:  pop music is the order of the day, television is ubiquitous. He realises that this is an enchantment put on the populace by the trolls. Only a new fiddle tune can break the magic.
The present two numbers were extracted in 1988. They are the dance of the trolls and the island party get-together where the reinvigorated fiddle tune seeks to restore tradition. Divorced from the opera, these dances make an ideal concert work, however most listeners will keep the old story at the back of their minds. The musical style is that of traditional Orcadian fiddlers with a few ‘Max’ twists and turns. There is also a version for solo violin and ensemble.

I have never visited Fair Isle, but I have sailed past it. Located halfway between Orkney and Shetland, it is well known for its wild life, its cultural heritage and community spirit, to say nothing about the vividly patterned knitwear.  The resident population of around 70 souls is the most remote of the British Isles.
Maxwell Davies has written that the inspiration for his Piano Trio: A Voyage to Fair Isle was ‘a trip to Fair Isle, an island I can just see from my home in Orkney on a good day but a place which, under normal circumstances, is difficult to get to and which one would hardly have time to visit.’ He had been invited to a music festival (2002) on the island: no mean achievement for such a tiny community. One of the pieces performed was a demanding vocal work by Alastair Stout called Given Days. This imaginative, challenging and often beautiful piece lasted for nearly half an hour and can be heard on Stout’s website.  Maxwell Davies states that his Trio ‘is an attempt to express my delight at, and my appreciation of, this experience.’ It was written specifically for the Grieg Piano Trio, resident in Norway.

The Trio opens with slow music, evoking the remoteness of this island. Much of the work’s musical material is first presented here. The mood changes with some impressionistic bars before ‘local dance music’ makes an appearance. The development involves some unhurried passages as well as ‘transformations’ of the folk music themes. Much of the work is elegiac: it is certainly not a ceilidh, although there are moments that are witty and exuberant. The underlying musical theme of the entire Trio is a plainsong chant for September 8th, ‘The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary’: it also happened to be Maxwell Davies’ birthday.

I wondered if the Sonata for Violin Alone was going to be the most challenging work on this CD.  I was wrong. It is a wonderful piece that has huge intensity, musical variety and considerably lyrical beauty. It was composed in 2013 for the Italian violinist Duccio Ceccanti, the soloist on the present CD.  The first performance was given on the shores of the Lagoon in Venice on 7 October of that year.  
It is difficult to give a verbal description of this piece, save to suggest that it is a perfectly balanced and constructed ‘Sonata’, that is timeless in its effect. It is largely ‘retrospective’ in mood, save for a brief excursion into ‘dance music.’   Listening to this undoubted masterwork for solo violin it is hard to believe that this contemplative piece came from the same pen as some of the outré avant-garde works of the 1950s and 60s. 

The final work I listened to was the Sonata for violin and piano. The topographical references alluded to in this work are a long way from the Island of Hoy in the Orkneys. Maxwell Davies has written that the ‘sonata for violin and piano traces an imaginary traffic free walk across Rome, taking its inspiration from a fantastic proposal in the book Progetti Frammenti di Architettura Italiana…for a continuous walkway from Borromini’s 17th Century Chiesa Nuova, across a reconstructed Renaissance area, della Moretta…down to and over the Tiber, then straight through the present superannuated Regina Coeli prison, transformed into an exhibition space, with glass façades, for ancient Roman sculpture, and up through parkway to the Gianicolo, from where one has breath-taking views over the whole city.’
The music is a balance of haunting beauty and some vigorous outbursts that may refer to local revellers or supressed anger at the destruction of the Via Moretta, demolished and ‘redeveloped’ by Mussolini.  Certainly, the music gives the impression of deep brooding and lost opportunities.
The Sonata was composed for Ilya Gringolts to perform at the St Magnus Festival, Orkney and the Cheltenham Festival, both in 2008.

This disc tidies up several loose ends in the chamber music ‘section’ of Peter Maxwell Davies extensive catalogue, and is closely related to the five-CD cycle of the composer’s ten ‘Naxos’ string quartets.  Three of the four works are ‘World Premiere Recordings’, the exception being the Piano Trio. (Champs Hill Record CHRCD090). The performance of all these pieces is excellent. The liner notes by Richard Whitehouse are informative and include brief ‘bios’ of the performers. The recording is superb in every detail.
All fans of Max will require to own this CD. It is one of the most satisfying discs that I have heard in a while. Surprisingly, the work I considered was going to be the most problematic (for me) turned out have impressed me most.

Track Listing:
Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (1934-2016)
Sonata for Violin Alone: dedicated to Duccio Ceccanti (2013)
Dances from The Two Fiddlers (arr. violin and piano) (1978/88)
Sonata for violin and piano (2008)
Piano Trio: A Voyage to Fair Isle (2002)
Duccio Ceccanti (violin), Vittorio Ceccanti (cello), Matteo Fossi (piano), Bruno Canino (piano, Sonata)
NAXOS 8.573599
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Gustav Holst (1874-1934): Toccata for piano (1924)

Holst’s catalogue of piano music is relatively small, numbering just over a dozen pieces. Of these only about half have entered the repertoire pianists and the recording studio. Four are reworkings of folk tunes, ‘Christmas Day in the Morning’, Two Northumbrian Folk Tunes: ‘O! I Hae Seen the Roses Blaw’ and ‘The Shoemakker’ and the present Toccata. The other works include an Arpeggio Study, a Nocturne and a Jig and a major arrangement of The Planets for two pianos.

The Toccata (1924) is an energetic and spirited work that explores a variety of rhymical and wayward key-changes which are interpolated onto a largely arpeggiated melody. It is a small set of variations on the Northumbrian pipe tune ‘Newburn Lads.’ 
Imogen Holst has suggested that the composer considered that he had ‘flattered the old man with a worn-out hurdy-gurdy who used to play ‘Newburn Lads’ in Cheltenham in 1879.’  One wonders if Holst truly was impressed by this rustic performance when he was only five years old. The inspiration is more likely to have derived from his friendship with the composer, musicologist and pedagogue, W.G. Whittaker (1876-1944), who published a collection of Countrie Ballads, Songs and Pipe-Tunes in 1922. This volume featured ‘Newburn Lads.’
The Toccata was dedicated to ‘Adine O’Neill and her pupils’. O’Neill (nee Ruckert, 1875-1947) was a celebrated pianist and music teacher. In 1899 she had married the composer Norman O’Neill.

Gustav Holst’s Toccata is available on SOMM CD011 (2012) with Mark Bebbington and also on Chandos CHAN8770 played by Kathron Sturrock.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

British Flute Music: in the Early 19th Century

Enthusiasts of late 18th/early 19th century organ music will have come across Matthew Camidge’s Organ Concerto in G minor as well as several smaller pieces in various albums of ‘Old English Organ Music.’ They will also know that he was member of a familial dynasty that oversaw music at York Minister for 103 years (1756-1859).  Matthew Camidge wrote many sonatas for piano with violin and cello accompaniments, church music, songs and teaching material. The Flute Sonata dates from about 1813. Camidge’s style is rooted in an earlier period. He does not seem to have been influenced by Beethoven, despite seven of that composer’s nine symphonies having been performed at this date. This music is more likely to remind the listener of J.C. Bach with Corelli and Handel not far in the background. I enjoyed the freshness and innocence of this charming three-movement sonata.

Two short Sonatinas by Thomas Attwood Walmisley are included.  Howell points out that the works’ titles are misleading. What is presented here are in effect ‘operatic scenas’ which both open with a slow introduction before exploring more rigorous formal characteristics. Each is composed in a single movement, ‘that combines sonata and rondo form in a manner both intuitive and highly effective.’ I guess that Weber is the underlying source of inspiration for these two beautiful short pieces. They demand to be better known by flautists (and oboists, for whom the ‘sonatinas’ were originally composed)

Where Edward Loder (1809-65) is recalled today, it is for his operas. Most recently Retrospect Opera has announced that a recording of his opera Raymond and Agnes will be made during 2017.  Recent years have seen a CD of his piano music, the Overture: Night Dancers and several songs. In 2016 Boydell and Brewer published Musicians of Bath and Beyond: Edward Loder (1809-1865) and his Family which is a symposium edited by Nicholas Temperley.
Edward Loder received his musical education from Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) in Frankfurt. He went on to be conductor of the Princess’s Theatre in London before moving to Manchester to become the musical director of the Theatre Royal.

The present ‘Original Theme with variations’ was composed around 1830 and dedicated to Frederick Gye, Junior. The opening theme could have been composed by Haydn. Loder conventionally makes the following four variations more and more complex but also deploys piano solo passages at the end of each variation that are not directly related to the theme. The liner notes suggest that this may be unique. The fifth variation has an operatic feel to it: the soloist ‘breathes’ a long and thoughtful cantilena. The work concludes with a Polonaise and a ‘brilliant’ coda.  Altogether a remarkable work, that leads the listener to want to explore Loder’s six String Quartets and Flute Sonata.

The music of Chares Edward Horsley is surely ripe for rediscovery. His works list includes a symphony, a piano concerto, two concert overtures, piano music and songs. This is over and above the usual run of oratorios so popular with Victorian composers. His credentials were good too: study with Moscheles and Mendelssohn gave him technical prowess as well as a developed imagination.
This four-movement sonata, composed in 1846, is the longest work on this CD running to more than half an hour.  It is a romantic piece that explores many moods and temperaments.  A few musical signposts are useful: they do not suggest pastiche or parody or lack of Horsley’s imagination.  The Romanza may nod to John Field’s Nocturnes, whilst the Scherzo has something of Arthur Sullivan’s lightness of touch – ‘Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither.’
I have a theory: if the listener was told that this present Flute Sonata was a ‘lost’ work by Mendelssohn, they would not stare in disbelief. Yet, because it was written by a Victorian British composer it is condemned in many minds as worthless before a note is heard. Howell is correct when he suggests that this work ought to be the ‘flautist’s standard sonata from the earlier romantic age…’

Anyone of a certain age who has sung in a church or chapel choir will have performed John Henry Maunder’s Olivet to Calvary. At one time, this work was nearly as popular as John Stainer’s Crucifixion. Chelsea-born Maunder also composed a few comic operettas, church service music and part-songs. Pleasant as ‘Espagnola’ may be, it seems to me that Spain has very little to do with it: there is no Spanish colouring and certainly no touch of tango or flamenco. He seems to have set his topographical sights no further south than Bognor Regis. It is a well-written piece that reminds listeners that there was more to Maunder than his Olivet. No date is given for this piece, but it was probably composed in the late nineteenth century. Christopher Howell has written that this number falls outside the remit of ‘early’ 19th century flute music, but that it was deemed a successful encore for recitals: it admirably fulfils this role here.

This is a delightful CD. The sound is clear: every note is heard as intended. The liner notes by Christopher Howell, as usual, are definitive.

Both soloists, Gilberto Fornito (flute) and Christopher Howell (piano) approach these pieces with conviction, technical prowess and enthusiasm. Each work proves that the critic who declared that Britain was a ‘land without music’ before Parry penned his Prometheus Unbound (1880) or Elgar knocked out his Enigma Variations (1899) is manifestly wrong. These pieces for flute and piano may not be ‘masterpieces’ in the accepted sense of the word, however each one is an important and worthy contribution to the flautist’s repertoire. And, occasionally, the music rises to the heights of the sublime: the ‘Romanza’ from Horsley’s Sonata being a case in point.

Track Listing:
Matthew CAMIDGE (1764-1844) Sonata in B flat major, op.8 (c.1813)
Thomas Attwood WALMISLEY (1814-56) Sonatina No.1 in B flat major, Sonatina No.2 in G major
Edward LODER (1809-65) Original Theme with variations (c.1830)
Charles Edward HORSLEY (1822-76) Sonata in A minor, op.11
John Henry MAUNDER (1858-1920) Espagnola
Gilberto Fornito (flute) Christopher Howell (piano) 
SHEVA SH156
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Doreen Carwithen & Thomas Pitfield: Violin Sonatas

This wonderful exploration of British music for violin and piano opens with Doreen Carwithen’s masterly Sonata. Carwithen has pointed out that this work is not in conventional sonata form: the order of the movements and the formal structure are not strictly applied.  Yet, the overall impression is of a deeply thought out work that combines a satisfying progression of ideas with outstandingly virtuosic playing demanded from both soloists. This is a passionate work that just seems to pour out emotion, albeit always controlled.
John Turner (liner notes) suggests that the score was completed around 1951 (c.1960 in track-listing), despite the fact the composer herself could not recall the circumstances and date. Apparently, the work was rejected by the BBC Music Panel in 1952 with three ‘No’s’: from Clarence Raybould, Gordon Jacob and Benjamin Frankel. Clearly, they were having an ‘off day.’ This rejection and that of her splendid tone-poem (overture) Bishop Rock ‘effectively silenced the work’ until it was recorded by Lydia Mordkovitch (violin) and Julian Milford (piano) in 1998 (Chandos, CHAN 9596).

Charles Wilfred (C.W.) Orr is usually associated with his definitive settings of the poetry of A.E. Housman. There are other songs, a few choral numbers, and one or two pieces of chamber music. His only excursion into orchestral music was the idyllic Cotswold Hill-Tune written in 1937. I have not previously heard the two pieces presented on this CD: Serenade and Minuet. Both were written ‘after 1930.’ John Turner suggests that they may never have been publicly performed during the composer’s lifetime. The ‘official’ premiere was given by the present artists at the 4th William Alwyn Festival in 2014. It is not clear if they were intended as standalone pieces or were part of a projected suite. There is nothing ‘modernistic’ about the harmonic and melodic language, yet this is not ‘cow-pat’ music. These ‘subtle’ pieces epitomise late-English romantic music at its best. Whatever the situation, these two delicious pieces are a valuable discovery.

Changing mood somewhat, Lennox Berkeley’s ‘Elegy’ and ‘Toccata’ were composed in 1950. They were originally published as discreet pieces, but have come to be complimentary: they are now usually performed together. Both are dedicated to the violinist Frederick Grinke (1911-87). The Elegy is exactly what it ‘says on the tin’: sad, reflective and lyrical. It was subsequently arranged for string orchestra. The Toccata is a breathless romp from end to end.

Once again, I have not heard Cyril Scott’s two Sonnets before reviewing this disc. They were published in the early days of the First World War. Surprisingly modern in mood, these two quite dissimilar pieces are in the composer’s ‘non-tonal’ style. It is possible that Scott showed these two Sonnets to Claude Debussy in 1913. They are dreamy, imaginative and inspired by a somewhat abstract text which is quoted in the liner notes.

I enjoyed the short Légende in E flat by Fred. Delius. It was composed whilst he was living in Paris, probably sometime around 1892/5. It exists in two versions: for soloist and orchestra, and the present one.  There is no clue as to what the ‘legend’ underlying the work may be, so I guess the listener is free to apply any ‘programme’ or none.  Some listeners will feel that the style of this music is a long way from ‘Cuckoos’, ‘Gardens’ and ‘Summer Nights on Rivers’: there are some magical moments, but I think Rob Barnett is correct when he ascribes the adjectives ‘Palm Court’ to this piece. That does not belittle the music in any way.

Bolton-born Thomas Baron Pitfield’s huge catalogue of music is currently represented by three works in the Arkiv catalogue. Over the years a few more have appeared on record here and there: some are now deleted. The two most significant discs are of the Piano Concertos No.1 and 2 on Naxos (8.557291) and the Violin Concerto on Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7221). In 1993 a retrospective of Pitfield’s music was issued by the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) (HERITAGE HTGCD210).
The present CD is a welcome addition to the listings.  John Turner points out the Violin Sonata No.1 became one of the most regularly performed of Pitfield’s works. It was composed in 1939 and dedicated to R.J. Forbes (1878-1958), then Principal of the Royal Manchester College of Music (now RNCM). The sonata, which is in four contrasting movements is immediately approachable. Formally, the thing that makes this work tick is the finale which is a set of cyclic variations that recapitulates in reverse order the themes of the entire sonata. I accept that this is not obvious to the casual listener (I needed the notes for this information too), but structurally it is clearly novel.
The artistic inputs to this work are manifold. These include English folk-song, classical balance and poise, French sophistication and Russian imagination. What Pitfield has succeeded in doing is creating a synthesis here which has become his unique voice. I guess that I would need to hear much more of this music, before drawing too many stylistic conclusions, but based on this interesting and often quite beautiful sonata, I feel that a major reappraisal of his music is long overdue.

Many listeners will associate Percy M. Young with successful and enduring books about music. These include studies of Edward Elgar and Arthur Sullivan. Yet, as well as being a musicologist he was an editor, organist, conductor, teacher and composer. I have not knowingly heard any compositions by Young until this present Passacaglia: I understand that he wrote ‘Virgin's Slumber Song’ (1932), From a Child's Garden (Robert Louis Stevenson; 1941), Fugal Concerto in G minor for 2 pianos and strings (1951), and Elegy for String Orchestra (1960). (Wikipedia)
The Passacaglia for violin and piano was Young’s first published work, dating from 1931. It is dedicated to the violinist Margaret Mathieson.  The music develops from a ‘Purcellian ground bass’ first heard on the piano. There is a touch of Gerald Finzi about the gradual working out of this short piece. It is a beautifully proportioned work that is both reflective and positive at the same time.

The two short pieces by John Ireland were written with amateur performers in mind: neither are condescending in their content or technique.  The heart-achingly beautiful ‘Berceuse’ was originally a ‘Grade 3’ piece, but even the relative simplicity of the solo violin part does not detract from this little masterpiece. The ‘Bagatelle’ is a bouncy number that has just a hint of sadness around the edges. The latter was dedicated to the violinist Marjorie Hayward (1885-1953).

The liner notes by John Turner are essential reading and give all the data required for an informed appreciation of these varied works. They have been an immense help in the preparation of this review. Turner has long been an advocate for the music of Thomas Pitfield and has done much to promote it over the years.

The performance of these works is always convincing and exhibits understanding of the artistic parameters of each work as well as displaying palpable enthusiasm. Whether dealing with the complex outpouring of Carwithen or the heartfelt melody of John Ireland’s ‘Berceuse’, Fenella Humphreys (violin) Nathan Williamson (piano) give definitive performances of all this music.  Information on the soloists would have been helpful, however their respective web-pages are cited. 

Once again, Lyrita have excelled themselves with this highly imaginative conspectus of British violin music. Most of the works are ‘premiere recordings’: those that are not are hardly ubiquitous.  Long may this adventurous spirit prevail in the managerial echelons of this national treasure of a  record company. 

Track Listings:
Doreen CARWITHEN (1922-2003) Violin Sonata (c.1951)
C.W. ORR (1893-1976) Sarabande (after 1930) [5:55], Minuet (after 1930)
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-89) Elegy and Toccata op.33 No.2 & 3 (1951)
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970) Two Sonnets (1914/15)
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) Légende in E flat (c.1892-5)
Thomas PITFIELD (1903-99) Sonata No.1 in A (1939)
Percy M. YOUNG (1912-2004) Passacaglia (1931)
John IRELAND (1879-1962) Berceuse (1902) [3:59], Bagatelle (1911)
Fenella Humphreys (violin), Nathan Williamson (piano)
LYRITA SRCD 359 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.