Monday, 27 February 2017

William Alwyn: Blackdown: A Tone Poem from the Surrey Hills (1926)

A few years ago, listeners would have been forgiven for not realising that William Alwyn had composed any music before his Divertimento for flute (1940). Alwyn felt that his early music had suffered from ‘a woeful inadequacy of technique.’ He ‘disowned’ all music written before this date. In recent years, several early works have been discovered (clearly, he did not destroy the scores) and have received premiere recordings. Whilst many of these compositions may not be masterpieces, the listener will soon come to the opinion that Alwyn was too harsh on his ‘early horrors.’

These ‘prentice works include the Peter Pan Suite (1923), a Prelude for orchestra (1925), Prelude and Derrybeg Fair music from the opera The Fairy Fiddlers (1925), Five Preludes for orchestra (1927), Ad Infinitum: a satire for orchestra (1929), Aphrodite in Aulis (eclogue for small orchestra after George Moore (1932), Serenade (1932), Seven Irish Tunes (1936) and the Tragic Interlude for small orchestra (1936)

One of my favourite early works dates from 1926, when Alwyn was only 19 years old. Blackdown: a tone poem from the Surrey Hills was completed in London on 9 March 1926. Andrew Knowles’ liner notes for the only recording (at present) of this work, notes that the title refers to the summit of a hill situated near the town of Haselmere. The work is a ‘musical portrait of the area.’
Alwyn, himself, has written that ‘the pastoral opening depicts the quiet beauty of the whole wide expanse of country which extends as far as the eye can see. The oboe ushers in a chromatic tune which, like a breeze, disturbs the calm. The breeze freshens to a blustering gale, swaying the pine trees in the ‘Temple of the Winds’ till it reaches a crashing climax. Then the music dies away, finishing in the song-like mood of the opening.’

I felt that one major problem with this work was that it was too short for the wide ranging musical material presented. The piece is in an arch form, which opens and closes in a Delian mood. The middle section owes much to Arnold Bax and his November Woods. However, commentators have picked up on the influence of Rimsky Korsakov.  
Roger Hecht in the American Record Guide (May 2010) connects the middle section of Blackdown with the storm in Rimsky-Korsakoff's Scheherazade but considers Alywn’s music is ‘darker and heavier.’

The tone poem was first performed at the Guildford St Nicholas Hall on 23 November 1926 by the Guilford Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Claud Powell. Adrian Wright (The Innumerable Dance, Boydell Press, 2008) cites an unattributable reviewer of the premiere who considered that Blackdown was ‘slight, pleasing and – a good point -concise.’ As noted above, I feel it could have been longer!

Blackdown: a tone poem from the Surrey Hills was released in Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7237) coupled the Overture in the form of a Serenade, Prelude for orchestra, the Peter Pan Suit and, Ad Infinitum: A Satire for orchestra. Other composers represented on this disc include Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s Hypathia: Incidental music, Vaughan Williams’ Heroic Elegy & Triumphal Epilogue and York Bowen’s Orchestral Poem: Eventide.
Ian Lace reviewing the Dutton release for MusicWeb International (9 December 2009) considered that ‘incredibly this dynamic piece was never performed in Alwyn’s lifetime. Blackdown – a Tone Poem of the Surrey Hills is a beautiful pastoral evocation beginning serenely but with developing storm-clouds that recall Bax’s November Woods.’
Writing in The Gramophone (June 2010), Andrew Achenbach considers that all four of Alwyn’s works in this CD ‘demonstrates a budding orchestral mastery…’

The Fanfare magazine had three critics review this work: Barry Brenesal; Arthur Lintgen, and Ronald E. Grames.  They reported that William Alwyn's Prelude, Blackdown, Peter Pan Suite, and Ad Infinitum are all distinctly minor works that are technically competent and stylistically anonymous…Blackdown is a brief tone poem that gives an early glimpse of Alwyn's cinematic style. Interestingly, it was considered that Blackdown’s ‘opening briefly pays tribute to Vaughan Williams before settling into an idiom that mixes modal themes with Impressionistic harmonies and coloration to excellent effect.’ Certainly, this is where the allusions to Delius are found.  Finally, Blackdown…shows the influence of Vaughan Williams and lacks only a distinctive melody to make it striking.

Later this year, (3 March, 2017) Chandos is releasing British Tone Poems: Volume 1 (CHAN 10939) This will include William Alwyn’s Blackdown, as well as Frederic Austin’s Rhapsody: Spring, Granville Bantock’s The Witch of Atlas, Balfour Gardiner’s A Berkshire Idyll, Ivor Gurney’s Gloucestershire Rhapsody and Vaughan Williams’ The Solent. Only the Balfour Gardiner is a premiere recording.


Friday, 24 February 2017

Eric Coates: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Composer's Gallery' (1946)

Donald Brook wrote a series of books presenting attractive short studies or pen-portraits of a wide variety of composers, conductors, pianists, violinists and authors. He had met these people and had a chance to speak to them about their achievements and interests. Sir Granville Bantock endorsed Composer’ Gallery (1946) by insisting that it ‘will be welcomed by music lovers and the larger public throughout the civilised world.’
On a personal note, this was one of the earliest second hand books about music that I bought in the days before the internet, it served as my introduction to a wide range of composers and their music.  I include several footnotes to Brook’s pen-portrait of Eric Coates.
The main resources for students of Eric Coates music are Geoffrey Self’s In Town Tonight: A Centenary Study of the Life and Music of Eric Coates (London: Thames, 1986) and Michael Payne’s, The Life and Music of Eric Coates (Farnham, Ashgate, 2012).  

TURNING to lighter music for a moment, we find that Eric Coates [(1886-1957] is one of the few who can write cheerful melodies that appeal to the masses without being musically vulgar. We have the assurance of many eminent composers that this is not as easy as one would imagine.
Eric Coates, who is in no way related to Albert Coates the conductor, was born at Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, in 1886, son of a physician. [1] He has happy memories of a carefree boyhood spent in the quiet old house [2] in which his father practised for forty years, and he recalls that his earliest efforts at music-making started when a friend from London happened to leave a fiddle at the house after a visit to the family. Eric, aged about five or six, began to experiment with the instrument, and within a couple of weeks could play quite a number of little tunes to amuse himself.
This led ultimately to violin lessons with Georg Ellenberger of Nottingham, instruction in harmony from Dr Ralph Horner [3] of West Bridgford (Nottinghamshire), and, at the age of twelve, the leadership of a little string orchestra in his native village. Then his father generously paid ten shillings a season to the Nottingham Sacred Harmonic Society for the privilege of allowing his son to play in their orchestra, but by the time he was sixteen, Eric had become such a useful member of the ensemble that instead of accepting a fee, they paid him half-a-guinea a concert for his services.
Coates began to compose when he was very small, but Dr Horner forbad him to do so and insisted that all his efforts should be put into his study of harmony. Despite this injunction and a stern warning from his father about ‘wasting time’ he continued to write.

He was still at school when he took up the viola as well, and as he seemed to make very rapid progress he wrote to Dan Godfrey, the conductor of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, asking if there were likely to be any vacancies for viola players. Godfrey replied saying that he wanted a viola player who could ‘double’ on a wind instrument, so Coates prevailed once again upon the parental generosity and obtained a fine Boehm flute. Although he soon became quite an accomplished player, he never succeeded in getting into Godfrey's orchestra.

The question of his career brought a dismal suggestion from his father's bank manager eulogizing that monotonous profession. Eric was horrified, and after several feverish entreaties, his father at last agreed to give him the chance of a year in London to study music, on the condition that if he did not succeed within twelve months, he was to return home and go into a bank.
Coates went to the Royal Academy of Music in 1906 determined to win his laurels as a professional musician. He studied the viola under Lionel Tertis, and composition with Frederick Corder. [4] In a surprisingly short time he won a scholarship for the viola, and then resolving to become independent, set about finding part-time work so that he could pay for his own rooms as well. Again, he succeeded; for a friendship with a professional viola player enabled him to secure sufficient work as a deputy in various theatre orchestras to proclaim his financial independence.
After eighteen months at the Academy he went to South Africa with the Hambourg String Quartet, [5] and while he was there he wrote his first great success: the song ‘Stonecracker John’, which sold over half-a-million copies.
Returning to England, he joined the Beecham Orchestra in 1909, and in the same year his ‘Four Old English Songs’ were sung by Princess Olga Ouroussoff [6] at the Queen's Hall Promenade concerts. Later, these songs were made famous by Melba, who sang them all over the world.
Two years later Sir Henry Wood performed his Miniature Suite at the Promenade concerts, and invited Coates to become his principal viola. The invitation was accepted, and the appointment
lasted until 1918, when Coates gave up the viola and never touched it again.

In 1913 he married Miss Phyllis Black, daughter of Francis Black R.B.A., the eminent artist. Their son Austin, born in 1922, has been serving as a flying-officer with the R.A.F. in India.
As a child, Austin loved the story of the three bears, and persuaded his father to put it to music. The result was the well-known Phantasy, which was first produced at the Eastbourne Festival in 1926. I might add here that Mrs. Eric Coates wrote the story of The Enchanted Garden, and several other successes enjoyed by her husband.

Coates's first appearance as a composer-conductor was when he directed his Summer Days at the Queen's Hall in 1919. Since then he has toured extensively abroad, and has always enjoyed a great welcome in such countries as Norway, Sweden, Holland and Denmark.

It is now many years since he wrote his world-famous London Suite. The BBC was partly responsible for its phenomenal success, because the ‘Knightsbridge March’ was chosen for that remarkably popular feature In Town Tonight. [7] Within a fortnight of its debut, the BBC was swamped with over twenty thousand letters from listeners eager to know the name of the jolly tune. When the London Suite was performed in Copenhagen the audience went almost mad with excitement, and the members of the orchestra joined in by applauding on their instruments,
creating the most cacophonous furore ever known in the capital.

There is of course the old story of the provincial gentleman who told the ticket-clerk of a London tube station that he had forgotten his destination but knew that a song had been written about it. The clerk immediately burst into an ear-splitting whistle and issued a single to Knightsbridge!

Eric Coates's Sleepy Lagoon [8] was a success as soon as it came from the publishers' hands, but when someone in America added words to it, the sales went up to something like half-a-million within a few weeks. Coates knew nothing about it until he received a cable from the States congratulating him on having written ‘No. 1 song hit in America.’ [8]

His latest [1946] works include the Three Elizabeth’s Suite, the ‘Eighth Army March’ and the ‘Salute the Soldier March’. It can be said with little fear of contradiction that Coates is responsible for the great ‘march vogue’ we are experiencing at the present time.

Although he specializes in light music, he is absolutely sincere about it, and takes the greatest care with his work. ‘Sincerity is the keynote of existence’ he says, and he abominates people who write with their tongues in their cheeks. He listens critically to all new music, and although he enjoys the work of such people as Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Arthur Bliss and Arnold Bax, he feels very doubtful about much of the modern music we are expected to accept to-day. He finds difficulty in appreciating the modern trend one finds in the work of many of the American and Russian composers and feels that they concentrate too much upon effects because they are afraid of being thought conventional.

There is now such a craze for originality that in trying to be ‘different’ people will write almost anything. Coates is acknowledged by millions of musicians as the link between classical and ‘Light’ music, and he can best be described as one who produces light music from a classical background, for he was brought up on Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. He cannot tolerate banality in music. One critic declares him to be the ‘first English composer to treat modern syncopation seriously’ and another has said that he is ‘the only modern composer who can write a simple, popular melody without being common.’

He is very fond of dancing, and frequently complains about the sentimental drivel sung by the crooners, for he demands a sparkling vitality in dance music. At one time, Ambrose [9] would always put on his liveliest tunes when he saw Eric Coates and his partner taking the floor.
Eric Coates confesses that he is an incorrigible lover of speed. He can never find a car that will go fast enough for him, and delights in air travel.  He also enjoys photography, and is always looking for a better camera than the one he already possesses.

Notes:
[1] Hucknall was known as Hucknall Torkard until 1916. The composer’s father, William Harrison Coates, was a local doctor. In his spare time, he was an amateur musician. He played the flute and ran the St Mary [Magdalene] Church Choir.   
[2] Shortly after Eric Coates’ birth, the family moved to Tenter Hill. Here Coates grew up. The house bears a plaque provided by The Eric Coates Society and Ashfield District Council.
[3] I could find little out about Georg Ellenberger, save he was a onetime pupil of Joachim. Dr Ralph Joseph Horner (1848-1926) was a local musician, composer, conductor and teacher.
[4] Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) was an English violist and well-respected teacher. Frederick Corder (1852-1932) was an English composer, conductor and music teacher.  He is best recalled as the teacher of Josef Holbrooke, Arnold Bax and Granville Bantock. His musical compositions have disappeared.
[5] The Hambourg String Quartet was founded by Boris Hambourg (1884-1954) a Russian born cellist. At the time of the South African tour the members were Jan Hambourg (violin), John Robinson (violin) Eric Coates (viola) and Boris Hambourg (cello).
[6] Princess Olga Ouroussoff (? -1909), a Russian born soprano, was Sir Henry Wood’s first wife. They were married in 1898.  The name and title have been a bit exaggerated. Her given name was Olga Michailoff. Henry Wood refers to her as ‘Princess Olga Ouroussoff’, in his memoirs, but according to Arthur Jacobs (Henry J. Wood; Maker of the Proms, 1994) she was entitled to neither the rank nor the surname, although her mother was Princess Sofiya Urusova.
[7] In Town Tonight was first broadcast on Saturday, 18 November 1933.  The Radio Times reports that it was ‘A Topical Supplement of the Week's Programmes…
featuring items of topical interest which have come to hand too late for inclusion in the printed programmes of the Press or The Radio Times. ‘In Town Tonight’ has been started experimentally as a weekly framework for the various 'surprise items' which have been hitherto scattered about the programmes, often at times inconvenient to the ordinary listener.’
[8] ‘Sleepy Lagoon’ was famously used as the theme tune to the long-running radio programme Desert Island Discs, first broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 29 January 1942 with Roy Plumley. The first castaway was Vic Oliver, the Austrian-born British actor and radio comedian.
[8] ‘Sleepy Lagoon’ reached Number 1 in the USA Billboard Charts during April 1942. It was played by Harry James and his Orchestra.
[9] Benjamin Baruch Ambrose (11 September 1896 – 11 June 1971), known professionally as Ambrose or Bert Ambrose, was an English bandleader and violinist. Ambrose became the leader of a highly acclaimed British dance 

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

It's not British, but... A Tribute to J.S. Bach

There is not an ‘original’ piece of Bach organ music on this CD. Yet every note testifies to the master. Music history shows Bach reworking his own music as well as that of other composers. Not necessarily to make it ‘better’: more often to allow new life to breathe into an already impressive work. We need only think of JSB’s organ concerti which were transcriptions of music by Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, Anton Vivaldi and others, to get the drift of what has happened since. 

The present CD opens with a stunning arrangement by French composer Alexandre Guilmant of the Sinfonia from the Cantata ‘Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir’ (We thank you, God, we thank you), BWV 29. Bach’s music was derived from his Partita for violin, BWV 1006. Guilmant was building on the master’s own borrowings. 

Everyone knows the heartbreakingly impressive Chaconne in D minor BWV 1004, the fifth movement of the Partita for violin no.2. Many will know the beautiful piano transcription by Ferruccio Busoni. It works equally well in this superb arrangement, by the American/German Wilhelm Middelschulte. I have never (consciously) heard this piece played on the organ. It is a worthy transcription.

The Echo, Partita in B minor, BWV 831, is the final movement of Bach’s ‘Overture in French Style’ in B minor, BWV 831. It is from the second part of the Clavier-Übung. Sigfrid Karl-Elert has done quite a bit of rearranging in this work. He has added additional voices, filled out the harmony and generally made the piece reflect nineteenth-century taste. That said, it is a happy work that does reflect the ethos Bach’s original. 

I have never really taken to Franz Liszt’s ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen.’ I do not know why. The piece is a set of variations built on a theme derived from the first movement of Bach’s eponymous cantata. The work was originally written for piano in 1862 and was transcribed for the organ the following year. The music is sad, reflecting the title (Weeping, Lamenting, Sorrows, Fear), the death of his daughter, Blandine, and the end of his prospects of marriage to Princess Caroline Wittgenstein. 

Once again, I have not heard the two Inventions (BWV 777 and 783) played on the organ before. Transcribed by Max Reger and Michael Straube, these are effective when taken from their piano/clavier/harpsichord originals and played on this splendid instrument. In both cases the two-part inventions have been reworked for ‘trio playing’ allowing total independence of hands and feet. They are thoroughly satisfactory in this reimagining. 

The final work on this CD is Max Reger’s Fantasia and Fugue on BACH, Op. 46 (1900). This work is a technically demanding piece that continues the practice of using B-A-C-H as the basic melodic cell for developing the musical material. The massive opening Fantasia feels like an improvisation. It is largely chromatic in its exploration of ‘the most dizzy heights of harmony and polyphony, fierce outlets interchange with adagio intermezzi…[and] crescendos which are kept running by the chromaticism of the [BACH] theme…’ The fugue opens quietly (pppp) followed by a double fugue which builds to a huge ‘apotheosis.’ It makes use of all the technical devices of augmentation, diminution, inversion and stretto. Although this is not a pastiche of Bach’s music, the sheer power, grandeur and constructive facility allows Max Reger to almost out Bach, Bach. 

The wonderful organ in Aarhus Cathedral was originally built by Lambert Daniel Kastens, who was a student of Arp Schnitger of Hamburg. It was completed in 1730. In the intervening 286 years, the instrument has been rebuilt and enlarged. Major work was carried out in 1876 by the Danish organ builder John Andreas Demant and later in 1927 by Theodor Frobenius.  This latter rebuild increased the stops numbers from 43 to 86, doubling the size of the instrument. The project was overseen by the Bach scholar Albert Schweitzer. Since 1927 three additional stops have been added, making it the largest pipe organ in Denmark.  The magnificent baroque case has been retained. One of the features of this organ are the reed stops imported from France, which were clearly inspired by the French cathedral organ sound. 
The full organ specification (essential for all organ CDs) is presented along with good colour photographs of the console and the organ case.

Kristian Krogsøe was appointed cathedral organist in 2007. In addition to these duties he teaches ‘solo organ class’ at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus and Esbjerg. Four years ago, Krogsøe released his debut album on Danacord (DACOCD 726) featuring the complete organ works of Maurice Durufle as well as the Requiem, op.9 and the Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens, Op. 10. It received impressive reviews on MusicWeb International by Hannah Parry-Ridout and William Hedley. I have not [yet] been lucky enough to hear this CD. 

This is a splendid release that does just as it says on the tin: provides a fitting tribute to J.S. Bach. This is at several levels. Firstly, the music of the master as arranged/transcribed/reworked by various hands, is clearly less-well-known than it deserves. Secondly, both Franz Liszt and Max Reger were both steeped in the organ (and other) music of Bach: they had ‘respect and gratitude to the enriching works of [Bach].’ Their original contributions build on (if not excelling) Bach’s organ work. And finally, the organ and organist of Aarhus present their own tribute: the liner notes suggest that the instrument (with its soloist) can ‘unfold in a symphony of varied timbres, the understanding of Bach’s influence on the genre of organ music [which] is extended through kaleidoscopic glasses.’ 

Track Listing:
J.S. BACH (1685-1750) Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 29, arr. Alexandre GUILMANT (1837-1911)
J.S. BACH Chaconne in D minor, BWV 1004, arr. Wilhelm MIDDELSCHULTE (1863-1943) 
J.S. BACH Echo, Partita in B minor, BWV 831, arr. Sigfrid KARG-ELERT (1877-1933) 
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (1862)
J.S. BACH Two-Part Invention in E major, BWV 777, arr. Max REGER/ Michael STRAUBE (?) 
J.S. BACH Two-Part Invention in A major, BWV 783, arr. Max REGER/ Michael STRAUBE 
Max REGER (1873-1916) Fantasia and Fugue on BACH, Op. 46 (1900) 
Kristian Krogsøe (organ)
DANACORD DACOCD773 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Some British Symphonies Celebrating their Half Centenary (1967)

There were at least ten symphonies composed or completed during 1967. Only two of them have become ‘popular’ in the sense that they have been recorded several times. Malcolm Arnold’s Symphony No.6 has appeared in the three ‘cycles’ of his Symphonies (Chandos, Naxos and Conifer) as well as on an LPO CD. The other work is Roberto Gerhard’s splendid Symphony No.4 ‘New York’ which has appeared on the Chandos edition of his orchestral music, which seems to have been abandoned. It was also included in the Valois Montaigne retrospective of Gerhard’s music.
Unbelievably, Havergal Brian contributed another three symphonies to his catalogue during this year. He had passed the 90 years old mark and was still going strong.  Brian’s Symphonies were not premiered at this time, but had to wait several years.  No.28 was first heard on 7 June 1973; No.29, January 1976 (private play through) and first public performance 17 November 1976; and No.30 was first heard on the radio on 24 September 1976. Brian was to write two more examples of the genre in 1968.
It is unfortunate that Richard Rodney Bennett’s Symphony No.2 (first performed 188 January 1968 in New York) has not been recorded. It is available on YouTube with Andre Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. This is clearly an important work. Bennett’s Symphony No.1 has been issued on LP, but not on CD. The 3rd Symphony was released by Koch in 1996 (KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS KIC 7341)
Benjamin Frankel has benefited from an imaginative release of all the symphonies and several orchestral works on the CPO label. Listening to the Symphony No 5, op. 46 it is hard to believe that it is such a ‘niche’ work. It may not be a masterpiece, but surely it deserves more than a single recording and occasional live performances.
Oliver Knussen’s Symphony No.1 was popular at the time of its premiere. Unfortunately, the composer chose to withdraw the work. So, there is no recording available.
Neither Arthur Butterworth’s A Moorland Symphony or Wilfred Joseph’s Symphony No 3, op 59 ‘Philadelphia’ for chamber orchestra have survived into the recorded legacy.  I only hope that one day some enterprising record company will issue complete symphonic cycles of these two composers. To be fair, Dutton Epoch and Lyrita have already released several Butterworth’s Symphonies. It is possible that radio broadcasts of the Butterworth, Knussen and Josephs are sitting in an archive. Let us hope they are rediscovered before too long.

Discography:
Malcolm Arnold: Symphony No.6, op.95 (1967)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley (includes Fantasy on a Theme of John Field, Sweeney Todd Suite and Tam O’Shanter Overture) Conifer Classics 74321-16847-2 (1993)

London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley (includes Philharmonic Concerto, Inn of the Sixth Happiness: Film Suite, Beckus the Dandipratt Overture and Flourish for a 21st Birthday London Philharmonic Records LPO 0013 (2006)

London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox (includes Symphony No.5) Chandos CHAN 9385 (1995)

National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Andrew Penny (includes Symphony No.5) Naxos 8.552000 (2001)

Richard Rodney Bennett: Symphony No 2 
No recording

Havergal Brian: Symphony No.28 (1967)
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski [attributed to "Horst Werner/Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra"] (includes Violin Concerto) ARIES LP 1607

New Russia State Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Walker (includes Symphonies Nos. 6, 29 and 31) Naxos 8.573408 (2015)

Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 29 in E-flat major (1967)
New Russia State Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Walker (includes Symphonies Nos. 6, 29 and 31) Naxos 8.573408 (2015)

Havergal Brian: Symphony No. 30 in B flat Minor (1967)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins (includes Symphony No. 10, English Suite No.3 and Concerto for Orchestra) Dutton Epoch CDLX 7267 (2011)

Arthur Butterworth: A Moorland Symphony (Saddleworth Festival, 1967)
No commercial recording

Benjamin Frankel: Symphony No 5, op 46 (1967)
Werner Andreas Albert/Queensland Symphony Orchestra (includes Symphony No. 1 and May Day Overture) CPO 999240-2 (1995)

Roberto Gerhard: Symphony No.4 ‘New York’ (1967)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Matthias Bamert (includes Pandora Suite) Chandos CHAN 9651 (1998)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis (includes Violin Concerto) Lyrita SRCD.274 (2008) (original LP release: ARGO ZRG 701) (1972)
Tenerife Symphony Orchestra/Victor Pablo Pérez (includes Symphony No. 2) Valois Montaigne MO782102 (1999) 
  
Oliver Knussen: Symphony No 1 – 1966-7 (withdrawn)
No Recording

Wilfred Josephs: Symphony No 3, op 59 “Philadelphia” for chamber orchestra
No recording

With thanks to Michael Herman at MusicWeb International for discographical information. 

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Mandala 3: Music by Nicola LeFanu & David Lumsdaine

Nicola LeFanu’s Invisible Places is a magical work. Written in 1986 for clarinet solo and string quartet, this music was inspired by the Italian author Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The composer writes that Calvino ‘offered a model of how to create a continuous narrative through many tiny, discontinuous ideas.’ The music is presented in sixteen sections or small movements, which are played continually. Without access to the score it is impossible to derive interconnections between pieces and to understand the internal construction of each. However, the work is a satisfying unity, that is approachable by even the most conservative (small ‘c’) of listeners. The language is modernistic, but hardly off-putting. There is much in the pages of this score that is quite lovely. The work was dedicated to a certain Hugh Sargent who commissioned it: it is not clear from the liner notes (or an Internet search) who this gentleman is. 

David Lumsdaine’s ‘fire in leaf and grass’ is beautiful. Unfortunately, the liner notes are scanty for this piece for clarinet and soprano. The text is derived from Denise Levertov’s poem ‘Living’ which was published in 1967. Lumsdaine wrote his setting during August 1991, and it received its premiere at St John’s Smith Square in October of that year. It is an attractive, almost impressionistic piece that perfectly matches Levertov’s text with dreamy music. As an aside, I hate when titles are printed in lower case. My old English master ‘Noddy’ Robertson would have had a fit, despite E.E. Cummings extensive use of it.

Trio 2:’Song of Peter’ sets words by a galaxy of poets: Emily Dickinson, Anton Chekhov, Ted Hughes and Sarah Teasdale (a First World War Poet). The liner notes give the sources of each text. The piece is scored for soprano, clarinet and cello. The theme of this ‘cycle’ is to ‘give different perspectives to perennial thoughts about time and mortality.’ This is achieved by interleaving Dickinson’s mystical experience, Hughes image of a house during a storm, Teasdale’s presentation a fascinating image of the world without people, and finally, Chekov who presents an image of ‘nuclear winter’ when ‘all, all have gone.’  There is no doubt that this is a bleak piece of music: even depressing. Yet the music explores the words with great effect. It is haunting and quite unforgettable in its impact.

The final piece in this imaginative disc is David Lumsdaine’s Mandala 3 composed for an ensemble featuring piano, flute, clarinet, viola, cello and Chinese Gong. This last instrument is hit by the conductor. Mandala 3 was composed in 1978 for the present ensemble: it is the longest piece on this CD. The structure is divided into three movements: an opening chorale, which is followed by a ‘sonata’ and concludes with a ‘fantasia.’  The basis of the work is reflected in the first movement, which is a ‘straightforward’ transcription of the final chorus from Bach’s St Matthew Passion – ‘Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder.’ This is followed by a slightly less-conventional sonata that muses over Bach’s music. I found the transformation a little severe, but it does work.  The final Fantasia is a curious mixture that needs to be heard to understand. Dominated by the piano, the other instruments ‘create an enfolding resonance around the piano…’ The Bach chorus makes a final appearance at the end of the work. Serenity reigns.
Lumsdaine, in the liner notes, concedes that this is ‘a very odd piece.’ Nevertheless, there is a powerful enchantment here that is derived from the fusion of Bach and the composer’s late seventies ‘take’ on it. I feel that it is an important work, even if I am not over-enthusiastic about it.
A ‘Mandala’ is a symbol found in Hinduism and Buddhism that represents the universe. Lumsdaine has clearly been attracted to this esoteric device: there are five works carrying this title in his current catalogue. They all feature a different line up of soloists and instrumental forces.

The CD insert could have been a little more detailed, to assist listeners who (like me) do not have the scores of these pieces in their libraries... On the other hand, each of these works stand on their own two feet: more detailed explanation may just muddy the waters. There are detailed notes about both composers as well as brief bios of the performers.
The performance of all four works is excellent. Clearly, we do not have alternative versions for comparison, but even the least attentive hearing of this music reveals soloists and ensemble who have a huge sympathy for, and understanding of, this music.  

This is a fascinating release from Métier, exploring the work of two of Britain’s leading composers. This music may not be to everyone’s taste, but I suggest that for ‘modern’ (late-20th century) music this album is exceptional in the presentation of interesting, moving and often downright gorgeous music.

Track Listing:
Nicola LEFANU (b.1947) Invisible Places (1986)
David LUMSDAINE (b.1931) ‘fire in leaf and grass’ for soprano and clarinet (1991)
Nicola LEFANU Trio 2: Song for Peter for soprano, clarinet and cello (1983)
David LUMSDAINE Mandala 3: piano, flute clarinet, viola and cello (1978)
Gemini/Ian Mitchell, Sarah Leonard (soprano) Aleksander Szram (piano)
MÉTIER msv28565 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Three Anecdotes from Tales of Organists by John Warriner

An Amateur beginner who was impressing his friends after his first organ lesson stated: “And tenderly pressing my feet down on the Vox Humana, I drew the swell pedal out and played a gorgeous chord upon the tremulant” Source: Alec Rowley

Charles Villers Stanford, representing what was then a more modern approach to harmony and George Mursell Garrett (1834-97) the old English school reflected by George Alexander MacFarrren’s Harmony and Cherubini’s Counterpoint, were daggers drawn. On one occasion Garrett correcting a Trinity student’s efforts in harmony, found a passage annotated and corrected. He asked who had done that, and the student said Professor Stanford. Garrett seized a pen and red ink and drew parallel lines exposing some parallel fifths, [two or more parts in counterpoint moving up or down in unchanging intervals of a ‘fifth’ e.g. C-G, D-A, E-B etc. Traditionally, they were strongly discouraged.] and underneath wrote something like this: ‘Bravo! Professor. Consecutive fifths. Congratulations. Yours Garrett.’
Shortly afterwards they met, and Stanford, who was annoyed, wound up by saying (for he too had a caustic wit) “But what could you expect from a man with a common name like Garrett, which I understand means and attic or a cheap common upper story.” Garrett briefly replied “Better have a common name than a common mind like yours, Stanford. A score draw I think!   

Georg Frederick Handel and Maurice Greene. A caller to Handel’s house enquired from Handel one day why Dr Maurice Greene’s (1696-1755) last composition was hung up outside the window. Handel replied that he thought it ‘did need more air.’
The modern listener will hardly find Greene’s music ‘stuffy.’ 

Warriner, John, Tales of Organists (London, Musical Opinion 1927)  

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Gareth Glyn: Anglesey Sketches – Revisited

Several years ago, I wrote a short blog post/review about the Welsh composer Gareth Glyn’s evocative Anglesey Sketches for string orchestra. After a recent trip to the Island, I decided to revisit this work and to include a little ‘reception history’.

The Sketches, which were completed in 2001, are conceived in five movements, each bearing the title of a location on the beautiful and mysterious island of Anglesey. The mood is ‘light’ rather than profound – except for the last movement which explores deeper matters. They were specifically composed for the original CD release (British String Miniatures Volume 2, CD WHL 2136).

The composer told me that the Anglesey Sketches have been misnamed on the CD cover! In fact, they were originally called the Anglesey Seascapes.  They were ‘very deliberately conceived as five views of the sea from the Anglesey coastline, and not various snapshots of parts of the island itself.’ The error was corrected when the work was partially re-issued on the Halcyon Days compilation (CD WLS 501). Personally, I find ‘sketches’ more appropriate– but obviously bow to Glyn’s original intent, however, the composer’s website gives both titles and the only full recording the work is cited as Anglesey Sketches. I retain that title in my essay. 

The first live performance was during the FEVA (Festival of Entertainment and Visual Arts) in Knaresborough, West Riding, Yorkshire on 17 August 2003. It was performed by the Knaresborough Pro Musica. The Sketches have subsequently been given by the Ensemble Cymru Chamber Orchestra in Pwllheli (28 January 2005), Bangor (29 January 2005), the Llandudno Festival Strings at the Llandudno Festival (9 July 2005) and by I Musici de Montréal (10 May 2007) in the Pollack Concert Hall, Montréal.
The composer has told me that there have been other concert performances resulting from hearing the CD or one of the numerous radio broadcasts. The work seems particularly popular in Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

Anglesey Sketches has not been published, but Gareth Glyn will supply the full score and parts to anyone who wishes to perform it. Other versions of the work exist: string nonet, string quartet and symphonic wind band.  Glyn told me that this last incarnation was a bit unexpected, but leading USA wind band conductor and arranger Paul Noble – having heard a radio broadcast of the Sketches – decided to make a version for wind band. It is available for hire from J. W. Pepper

The liner notes (CD WHL 2136) suggest that the Anglesey Sketches are ‘infused…with the Celtic spirit - lyricism, expressiveness and extremes of temperament.’
The first movement is a ‘reverie.’ It is subtitled ‘Llanddwyn’ which is a magical and secretive place associated with St Dwynwen. ‘Llanddwyn’ translates as ‘The Church of St Dwynwen’, who is the Welsh equivalent of St Valentine - the patron saint of lovers. His festival is celebrated on 25 January. Topographically, Llanddwyn is a small tidal island, located on the west coast of Anglesey, near the village of Newborough. There is a lighthouse and ruins of a church dedicated to the saint. The score is dominated by a romantic melody supported by pizzicato strings which opens and closes the proceedings. The middle section is a little variation on this theme. It is an extremely beautiful, but never sentimental, piece of music.
The second Sketch, ‘Malltraeth’ is much more expansive, with its depiction of a brisk stroll along The Cob beside the sands and the sea. It is typically a happy, jaunty, breezy movement with just a touch of wistfulness. ‘Malltraeth’, which translates as ‘desolate beach’ is a small community on the south coast of Anglesey. It lies at the head of a long and narrow bay which makes deep inroads into the island.
The third movement is an ‘intermezzo’, entitled ‘Penmon’. This is located on the south-east coast of the island, a few miles from the impressive Georgian town of Beaumaris with its World Heritage Site castle built by Edward I. At Penmon there is an ancient priory dating from the 6th century and containing traces of Saxon work. There is also a well-known wishing well, which was originally use by St Seiriol to baptise converts to the Christian faith. From the abbey, a track leads down to Penmon Point off which lies Puffin Island, also known as Ynys Seiriol or St Seiriol’s Island. There is an iconic lighthouse, Trwyn Du, complete with tolling fog bell, sounding every 30 seconds, to warn sailors of the dangerous reefs. From this vantage, can be seen a vast sweep of North Wales, including the Great and Little Orme and parts of Snowdonia.  Gareth Glyn’s score is reflective, with just a hint of ‘broad canvas’ as the yachts tack at the entrance to the Menai Straits. It is sad music that seems to embrace the wide-ranging history of Penmon.
The mood is lightened with the ‘scherzo’ which is a representation of the wonderful sea-side resort of Cemaes Bay on the northern coast of the island. We sense the mood of happy holiday-makers, watching the boats moored in the quaint harbour, shrimping in the rock pools or paddling in the sea from one of the delightful beaches. This movement acts as a foil for the finale, the sad but memorable ‘Moelfre’, which translates as ‘barren hill.’ The music, which is deeply felt, reflects on this dangerous but very beautiful coast which has claimed many lives and has caused so much grief and sadness. The piece features a haunting cello solo which contributes to the elegiac mood of the finale. The first four movements are good music – the last is great.

Two reviews appeared in the Fanfare magazine. The first (September 2003) suggested that ‘an unassuming set of Anglesey Sketches…[are] unaggressively tonal, [with] a couple of neat and sweet cadences.’ Gareth Glyn is a man who ‘knows how to end a piece.’ Two months later, (November 2003) Fanfare reported that the Anglesey Sketches were ‘somewhat muted’ and ‘lacked the energising scope and spirit’ of the composer’s earlier Snowdon Overture

Andrew Lamb, reviewing British String Miniatures Volume 2 for The Gramophone (August 2003), noted the approachability of the music and the ‘contrasted portraits of coastal points of the island.’ He was particularly impressed with the ‘scherzo’ which he thought depicted ‘donkey rides’ on the beach at Cemaes Bay. Equally satisfying was the ‘moving final elegy in memory of the many lives lost in the shipwrecks near Moelfre.’ The cello part of this movement offered ‘eloquent and rewarding material.
The same CD was reviewed on MusicWeb International (3 July 2003) by Jonathan Woolf. He wrote that the ‘opener is open-spaced and lyric, one that rises and falls over pizzicati underpinning in a gently effortless way.’  Woolf considered that the pastorale ‘Malltraeth’ ‘is by contrast jaunty and blustery and just mildly capricious too but with some gorgeous melodies embedded into it.’ After an ‘evocative’ ‘Intermezzo’ the composer contrives the ‘frolicsome naughtiness’ of the ‘Scherzo’ before ‘a keening solo cello adds even more plangency to 'Moelfre', the final movement, one that alludes to the treacherous stretch of coast of the same name that has cost so many lives.’

Discography:
British String Miniatures Volume 2 White Line CD WHL 2136 includes works by Purcell, Warlock, Delius, Curtis, Elgar and Lane (now deleted) (2003)
Halcyon Days: A Treasury of British Light Music [‘Malltreath’ and ‘Cemaes’ only] White Line CD WLS 501, 5 CDS (2004) (now deleted, but available as download)
With thanks to the composer for providing additional information.


Monday, 6 February 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending, The Solent etc. on Naxos

For many listeners, the main motive for purchasing this CD will be The Lark Ascending. The highly-regarded violinist Jennifer Pike and the Chamber Orchestra of New York give a fine performance of this extremely popular work. It presents the shimmering, impressionistic ‘all the live murmur of a summer’s day’ mood that this work demands. I confess that my bench-mark will always be Hugh Bean’s magical account with the New Philharmonia under Sir Adrian Boult. However, Pike’s performance will prove a success.
The remainder of the works on this disc are much less prevalent.

I first became aware of The Solent when I purchased Sir Adrian Boult’ splendid recording of RVW’s Symphony No. 9 on EMI ASD2581. This would be around 1973. Reading the liner notes, I discovered that ‘the second movement [of that symphony] begins with a theme for flugelhorn which came from an unpublished tone-poem The Solent (composed 1903) and is also used in the Sea Symphony.’  At that time, I could find precious little information about this work. The title stirred my imagination, but I guess I felt that I would never hear this ‘early horror.’ In the past decade or so, several withdrawn works have been released. The Solent appeared on Albion Records ALBCD016 in 2013. It was coupled with two other ‘mislaid’ tone poems – ‘Burley Heath’ and ‘Harnham Down.’ Like many RVW enthusiasts, I was not disappointed by these pieces and felt that they had been well worth the wait.
The Solent is a reflective and introverted work that was meant to be part of a larger suite, In the New Forest. Aesthetically, it is a million miles away from the notion of happy holidays by the sea at Ryde, Southsea or Cowes. In fact, the score is prefaced with the text by Philip Marston (1850-87): ‘Passion and sorrow in the deep sea’s voice, A mighty mystery saddening all the wind.’ I am delighted to have another splendid version of this long-awaited tone poem.

Vaughan Williams is not usually acknowledged for his piano music. Virtually all the original pieces, as opposed to arrangements, could be included on one side of an old vinyl LP. Glancing at Michael Kennedy’s Catalogue shows a few ‘occasional’ pieces: Birthday Gifts, Hymn Tune Prelude on Song 13, Introduction and Fugue for two pianos, Six Teaching Pieces, ‘The Lake in the Mountains’, an arrangement of Chorale Prelude ‘Ach bleib' bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ’, BWV 649, transcribed for piano and the Suite of Six Short Piece for piano.
I am curious as to how this present Suite can be billed on the album cover as a “World Premiere Recording”. To my understanding this short work was released on a vinyl LP by Peter Jacob in 1981 (Phoenix DGS1019), and subsequently issued on cassette tape (TRXC126) and CD (TRX CD126). Interestingly, this LP was engineered to be played at 45rpm as opposed to the traditional 33rpm. I never owned or heard this album.
The Suite was designed for teaching purposes, though I agree with the liner notes in thinking that is deserves to be recognised as a recital work. The work has six movements: Prelude, Slow Dance, Quick Dance, Slow Air, Rondo and a Pezzo Ostinato. The music is neo-classical in mood, although the ‘slow air’ does reflect the composer’s popularly perceived style. The rondo seems to hint at the song ‘Linden Lea.’ All six pieces are played with subtlety and conviction by Sina Kloke.
The Suite is better-known in its arrangement by the composer and James Brown as the Charterhouse Suite. This has been recorded several times, including on Naxos 8.555068. The title harks back to RVWs days at Charterhouse School in Godalming.

The Fantasia (Fantasy) for piano and orchestra, does not seem to have quite made it into the ‘popular’ Vaughan Williams’ repertoire. Two reasons spring to mind. Firstly, the work remained unheard until 2011. It had been rediscovered by the pianist Mark Bebbington in 2010 and was subsequently released the following year on the SOMM label (SOMMCD 246). The second reason is that the sound-world of this piece owes little to the ‘received’ ideas of what the ‘Englishness’ of the composer’s music implies.
The work was begun in October 1896, when RVW had returned to the Royal College of Music to study with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. During this time, plenty of other works were written, including the Heroic Elegy, the Bucolic Suite and The Garden of Proserpine. Many of these have now been issued on CD.
The Fantasia was completed on 9 February 1902 and was revised twice in 1904 when the score was laid aside and deposited in the British Library with the word ‘withdrawn’ written on the cover. It is not known if the work was composed with a soloist in mind: it was never performed until Mark Bebbington took it up.
The exemplars of the Fantasia are largely nineteenth century, including RVWs teacher Stanford, Brahms, Wagner and Delius, although just occasionally the listener will be struck by a phrase that seems closer to what we expect of the composer such as the Tallis Fantasia or The Lark Ascending.
The Fantasia is presented as a single movement work lasting for just over twenty minutes. It is cast in six contrasting sections. The listener will be impressed with the ‘bravura’ Brahmsian pianism which is well-played by Sina Kloke. It is a work which is very much if its time, but is none the worse for that. It deserves its place in the composer’s catalogue of recorded music.
The score was subsequently edited for performance by Graham Parlett, and was published in 2012.

The booklet notes by Paul Conway are outstanding, giving a good overview of RVWs ‘early horrors’ which have now become part of the composer’s legacy.
I enjoyed this new CD from Naxos. The choice of repertoire is interesting, although I am not sure about the mix of orchestral and piano pieces on the same CD. The playing is excellent and reflects a great sympathy towards English music by this orchestra from New York.

Track Listing:
The Solent (1902-3)
Fantasia for piano and orchestra (1896-1902, rev. 1904)
Suite of Six Short Pieces for piano (1920)
The Lark Ascending (1914, rev. 1920)
Jennifer Pike (violin) Sina Kloke (piano) Chamber Orchestra of New York/Salvatore Di Vittorio
NAXOS 8.573530

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

Friday, 3 February 2017

Richard Addinsell: Festival for piano and orchestra

Richard Addinsell (1904-77) is unfortunately regarded as a ‘one work’ composer. The well-known Warsaw Concerto has been popular ever since featuring in the war-time film Dangerous Moonlight. The story is often told of how he pored over the scores of Rachmaninov’s Second and Third Piano Concertos as well as the well-known example by Tchaikovsky, before devising this masterpiece of pastiche. The final score was orchestrated by Vaughan Williams’ one-time amanuensis Roy Douglas.
The light music enthusiast will know of several other film scores with equally good, if slightly less overblown music. I think of Blithe Spirit starring the gorgeous Kay Hammond and Rex Harrison. Then there is Good Bye Mr Chips, the politically driven Love on the Dole and Tale of Two Cities. One of his finest pieces is the ‘March’ from the movie I was Monty’s Double which is as good as similar examples by William Walton and Ron Goodwin.
Less popular, are Richard Addinsell’s other contributions to the piano/orchestra repertoire – The Smokey Mountain Concerto and the sparkling Festival.
The history of Festival is given in booklet for the Marco Polo recording the work by Philip Martin and the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Alwyn (8.223732).  In 1940 the Welsh dramatist Emlyn Williams (1905-87) requested the composer to write a song and some incidental music for his play The Light of Heart. It is assumed that Addinsell did not fulfil the commission. A few years later Williams asked for some more music, this time for a play called Trespass, about ‘a…Cardiff draper with dubious spiritualistic powers.’ 
This time the music appears to have been written sometime later the composer extracted two numbers from it: Harmony for False Lovers and Festival.  The former piece can be heard on YouTube: it is a dark, lugubrious piece that could have been scored for a ‘1960 French love film.' 
Festival on the other hand, is written as a lively and memorable ‘beguine’. This was a dance form popular in the 1930’s and originated in the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. It is a combination of Latin folk-dance and French ballroom dance. It is perhaps best remembered in Cole Porter’s superb ‘Begin the Beguine’ (1935). My favourite recording of this song was made by Julio Iglesias in 1981.
My one criticism of Richard Addinsell’s Festival is that it is too short: it lasts for little over five minutes. The listener is just getting into the Latin mood when this infectious tune comes to an end. It is a well-structured little number that balances the piano and orchestra with consummate skill. For the life of me, I cannot understand why it is not played regularly on Classic FM.
Festival can be heard on YouTube played by The Melachrino Strings conducted by George Melachrino. Interestingly, it was transcribed for two pianos/four hands by Percy Grainger in 1954. Seven years earlier Grainger had made a similar arrangement of the Warsaw Concerto

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford: Complete Music for Solo Piano Volume 3 CD2 Post 2

Ballet is one of the few genres that Charles Villiers Stanford did not contribute to. However, the Scènes de Ballet, op.150 dating from 1917 give the listener some clue as to what he may have come up with.  Yet not is all that it seems.
The score includes a ‘Tempo di Polka’, a ‘Pas de Deux’, the ‘Valse Chromatique’, a ‘Pas de Fascination’, a ‘Mazurka’ and concluding with a ‘Tourbillon.’ This latter could appear to represent a Scottish country dance, although Francois Couperin also made use of the dance in one of his harpsichord suites. The word is cited in the Oxford English Dictionary as being a ‘whirlwind, whirling storm.’ The piece is marked to be played ‘Tempo di Galop.’ Howell reminded me that there are examples of this title composed by Joseph Lanner and Joseph Siegmund Bachman which exploit this ‘galloping’ mood. Stanford recorded in his Pages from an Unwritten Diary that he heard dances played by Strauss and Lanner during his student years in Germany. I am not sure that Stanford precisely captures the mood of any definition or exemplar.

Scènes de Ballet had been used as a title by several composers, including Stanford’s friend Alexander Glazunov, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Igor Stravinsky.  At this time, ‘the spirit of parody’ was a prominent feature in much music. Howell has further suggested the Suite is an exploration of ‘light music’ of the kind that Stanford’s one-time pupil Coleridge-Taylor may have come up with. To this end, he wittily suggests that this ‘Scene du Ballet’ could also have been given the Ravelian title ‘Le Tombeau de Coleridge Taylor’ such is the stylistic referencing in this music.  This is a delightful score, that showcases enjoyable music. Yet, there is sometimes a harder edge, harmonically, to these pieces implying that Stanford was responding to Continental developments in musical style. After all, it was composed four years after Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

One of the earliest numbers is the short ‘March’ dating from 1860 when the composer had reached the grand old age of eight years. Hardly a masterpiece, but is worth hearing simply because, anecdotally, it was the Stanford’s opus 1. The work was supposedly performed during Puss in Boots at the Theatre Royal in Dublin. Howell suggests that the young composer may well have been inspired by Meyerbeer’s ‘March’ from Le Prophète.   Whatever the facts and opinions, it is good to have such an early piece from Stanford on CD.
The Romance – ‘Un Fleur de Mai’ was composed some four years later, circa 1864. This is quaint little piece that owes much to Balfe and possibly John Field. Certainly, this little flower was spotted in Ireland and not France. What it lacks in structure, it makes up in charm.

The Three Nocturnes were completed in 1921. Unfortunately, the first is missing.  This title is typically given to short character pieces written for piano in a quiet and lyrical style. It was introduced by the Irish composer John Field and perfected by Chopin.  Stanford’s ‘night pieces’ echo the mood of his native land. Howell has noted that they both have a ‘disjointed feel, almost like [a] mosaic’. Certainly, they show the composer looking towards Debussy rather than Chopin. The first performance of these two Nocturnes was given by the present pianist at the Villa Bossi, Bodio Lomnago, Varese in Italy. It is incredible that such imaginative and beautiful pieces had to wait so long to be heard.

The vibrant Toccata in C major dates from just after the Great War. It is a strong work that has echoes of Brahms and Richard Strauss’ Burlesque, although Howell points out that Stanford would not have relished the latter comparison.

The final three pieces on this CD are the Three Dante Rhapsodies, op.92, which were written in 1904. J.A. Fuller-Maitland defines these pieces as ‘the most ambitious of Stanford’s pianoforte compositions’ but are also ‘strangely lacking in inspiration.’  Charles Porte considers that despite the ‘Dante’ theme ‘they are rather dull as musical works.’
I feel that what we have here is the nearest thing to a piano sonata to survive from Stanford’s pen. Certainly, I find interest, strength, beauty and technical prowess at every turn of these three beautiful pieces.  I disagree with Fuller-Maitland that the first two movements, ‘Francesca’ and ‘Beatrice’ do not move the listener: I think they are gorgeous expressions of love and loss.
‘Francesca’ majors on that lady’s illicit love affair with Paolo, for which she remained ‘unrepentant.’  The second ‘movement’ is entitled ‘Beatrice’. I always associate this music with the stunning painting by Henry Holliday (one of my all-time favourites) in the Liverpool Walker Art Gallery. Stanford’s music is concurrently romantic, melancholy and strangely positive.  The final piece is ‘Capaneo’ who, according to Dante, is found amongst the ‘blasphemers’ in the ‘seventh circle of hell’ under fire from Zeus’ thunderbolts because he dared to defy the gods.  Interestingly, the closing pages are signed ‘nobilmente’ a term normally associated with Edward Elgar. It is a strong, virile piece that may not rise to the heights of inspiration, but is nevertheless effective and convincing.  The Three Rhapsodies were dedicated to Percy Grainger.

It seems superfluous to praise Christopher Howell’s liner notes for this CD. He is always meticulous in his scholarship and has a huge ability to communicate his passion for music. The text is supported by endnotes. Taking all three ‘volumes’ together, these ‘notes’ present an almost dissertation-length study of Stanford’s piano music. Added to this, are detailed ‘catalogue’ entries of each work in the track-listings, an introduction to ‘Stanford the Pianist’ and an overview of the piano music in general. A short bio of Christopher Howell is included. 

I enjoyed every piece on these two CDs. They are played with huge skill and obvious enthusiasm. The sound recording, which is excellent, adds enormously to the value of this music.  The entire package, three volumes, six CDs, the essential liner notes, the historical research, the preparation of scores and other material has been a major triumph. It is a massive contribution to the recorded legacy of one of the British Isles’ greatest composers. Everything on this present volume and the entire cycle in general, dispels the myth that Charles Villiers Stanford wrote music that was ‘as dry as dust.’  

Track Listing:
CD2
Scènes de Ballet, op.150 (1917) [24:15]
March (1860) [01:48]
Un Fleur de Mai: Romance (c.1864) [04:20]
Three Nocturnes, op184, (1921) No.2 B flat major [07:01] No.3 F major [07:47] n.b. No.1 is missing
Toccata in C major (1919) [04:35]
Three Dante Rhapsodies, op.92 (1904) [26:00]
Christopher Howell (piano)
Rec. Studios of Griffa and Figli, Milan, Italy, 29 October 2013; 6 May & 9 September 2014, 20 October 2015 & 11 February 2016.
SHEVA SH160 

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford: Complete Music for Solo Piano Volume 3 CD 1 Post 1

A great place to begin an exploration of this final instalment of the Complete Works for Solo Piano by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford is the beautiful ‘Ballade’, op.170. This is a ‘late’ work written in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Yet there is no angst or obvious reaction to the horror of that cataclysmic event. There is no ‘clue’ as to what the ‘story’ implied by the title may be. Suffice to say, it does not matter. The idea of the ‘form’ is to contrast both dramatic and poetic content.  Chopin was probably the first to develop this title (four examples) and it was taken up by Brahms and Liszt. What Stanford’s contribution lacks in powerful drama is made up by exquisite lyricism and thoughtful pianistic figurations. There is an Irish mood to much of the work’s progress, which is also characterised by a sense of freedom and improvisation. I guess the this ‘Ballade’ has more to do with love than battle. One of my favourite pieces of Stanford’s piano music.

This two-CD set is the final instalment of a large project. In 2009, Christopher Howell gave us a sampler of Stanford’s piano music in his Land of Sunset Glories. In 2015, the first and second volumes of the present ‘complete’ piano works appeared on the market. Every piece that is extant has been recorded.  Those works issued on the 2009 album have been recorded anew in their due place for ‘consistency of acoustic.’

Christopher Howell has provided information of the ‘lost’ piano music. This includes the Piano Sonata dating from 1885.  The first book of Six Concert Pieces has also disappeared.

The survivors of the Six Concert Pieces are the ‘Intermezzo’ and the ‘Toccata.’ Howell notes that the final piece (No.6) of op.42 Book 2 is not ‘missing’, it is included in the manuscript. The piece was ‘recycled’ with only minimal tidying up (scarcely perceptible to the ear) as no.5 of Night Thoughts op.148. Howell deemed it unnecessary to record it twice over, but made the point of putting opp. 42 and 148 on the same CD, so anyone who wishes can listen to the three surviving pieces of op.42 together.
The Concert Pieces were completed in 1894 and dedicated to the pianist Fanny Davies. They were never published in Stanford’s lifetime and were most unlikely played by Davies.  The ‘Intermezzo’ is particularly attractive, with a decidedly contemplative mood. On the other hand, the ‘Toccata’ is a tour de force that is fleet of foot. It is more ‘will o’ the wisp’ than ‘Widor!’

The suite Night Thoughts op.148 is the longest collection of pieces on this CD, lasting more than half an hour. They were completed in 1917.  The notes imply that many of these numbers were composed ‘much earlier.’ There is a huge disparity of style which gives a lack of coherence to this Suite. In fact, I guess it is better to regard this as a collection that can be played as standalone pieces.  The ‘Nocturne’ has a dreamy opening with a troubled march-like middle section.  I enjoyed the ‘Ballade’: once again Stanford seems to be telling a tale of love rather than war. It is characterised by ‘serenity’ and ‘thoughtfulness.’ Charles Porte considers that the ‘scherzo’ is the least pianistic of these works, being ‘orchestral in character.’ Yet the listener will enjoy the jaunty and spirited Irish mood of this piece.  It is followed by the Elgarian ‘A Soliloquy’ which is dreamy and introspective. The penultimate piece is a straightforward ‘Mazurka’, which ticks all the boxes for a lively, but in this case, slightly restrained dance. It has a memorable main theme.  Interestingly, the ‘Mazurka’ was once popular in County Donegal.  We are still in Ireland for the ‘Lament’. Of all these pieces, it is probably the one that strikes a note of sorrow commensurate with then-current events of Europe at war. Notwithstanding this Suite not working as an integrated whole, I enjoyed every single piece. 

The Two Fugues (1922/3) are late works. They were written as a Christmas/New Year greeting to the pianist/composer Harold Samuel (1879-1937), who had once been a student of Stanford’s.  As I understand, Samuel never performed these publicly, but may have played them at home.  The first documented performance was by Christopher Howell at the Villa Bossi, Bodio Lomnago, Varese in Italy on 1 February 2015.  
Howell states that they are ‘alternative versions’ of the second and third of the Three Preludes and Fugues for organ, op.193 (1922). They are not transcriptions.  The second fugue in B minor, which is a ‘fuga alla giga:’ it could be described as an Irish Fugue. These fugues are not pastiche Bach (Samuel was a highly-regarded exponent of Bach’s     music) but are certainly good examples of the genre. 

I love the ‘Irish Dances’, op.89. As the title implies, ‘the Irish spirit is naturally very pronounced in these pieces.’ There are four: ‘March’, ‘Jig’, ‘Slow Dance’, ‘The Leprechaun’s Dance’ and a concluding ‘Reel’. The liner notes explain their complex publication history, with versions for orchestra (surely a desideratum for a new recording) and for violin and piano.  Furthermore, the ‘Irish Dances’ were later ‘dished up’ by Percy Grainger in ‘a sparkling, show-off sort of way.’ There are several versions of Grainger’s ‘souped up’ dances on the market, so it is good that Howell has chosen to record the original Stanford incarnation.  There is a restraint and subtlety about these that is denied to Grainger’s deliberately ‘over the top’ version.  TO BE CONTINUED IN THE NEXT POST...

Track Listing:
CD1
Six Concert Pieces, op.42, Book 2 (1894) No.4 Intermezzo’ No.5 Toccata
Night Thoughts, op.148 (1917)
Ballade, op.170 (c.1919)
Two Fugues (1922/3): No.1 C minor, No.2 B minor
Four Irish Dances, op.89 (1903)
Rec. Studios of Griffa and Figli, Milan, Italy, 29 October 2013; 6 May & 9 September 2014, 20 October 2015 & 11 February 2016.
SHEVA SH160