Sunday, 18 February 2018

Some thoughts about Bruce Montgomery: Composer and Detective Novelist

It was on the P&O liner Oriana that I discovered Bruce Montgomery. In fact, it was quite a coincidence, with three strands coming together at once. Let me explain. The cruise's first ‘leg’ was the long but relaxing journey from Southampton to Barcelona. I spent most of the time eating, reading, swimming in the Riviera pool and listening to a carefully chosen play list of ‘classical’ music on my iPod. An apparently annoying habit I developed was whistling the ‘hornpipe’ as I walked round the promenade deck. But not just any ‘hornpipe’ – it was the catchy version used in that great comedy classic (at least I think so) Carry on Cruising. I could talk for hours about this film. There are so many ‘classic’ lines – 'I’ve been up to the sharp end, I‘ve been to the blunt end…'  'Italy has nothing to offer me I cannot get here (the bar!) – break out the Chianti…' etc. etc.

I had been reading an article about detective novels in general and so-called ‘locked room’ mysteries in particular. One of the texts mentioned was a book called The Moving Toyshop by a writer called Edmund Crispin. This was part of my holiday reading. And last, but not least, I included several classical music CDs in my listening plan – including a certain Concertino for String Orchestra.  It was not part of my plan to make connections – but I did. I soon realised that all three of the above indulgences were written or composed by a remarkable, if somewhat melancholic, man called Bruce Montgomery.

I imagine that relatively few folk will have heard of Bruce Montgomery, yet there will be hardly a person in the United Kingdom who is not acquainted with at least half a dozen of his film scores. I have already alluded to Carry on Cruising – add to this Constable, Nurse, Regardless, Sergeant and Teacher. I can only presume that everybody must respond to a least one of these classic excursions into British comedy. But Montgomery did not just compose music for the Carry On films: he provided scores for the equally enjoyable Doctor movies starring the redoubtable Dirk Bogarde, Leslie Phillips and James Robertson Justice.  How often do we look for the composer’s name in the credits of a film? I guess rarely.

Bruce Montgomery was born in Chesham Bois in 1921.  He had a good education both locally and at St John’s College, Oxford.  He studied modern languages and subsequently filled the vacant post of organ scholar there – the incumbent had gone off to fight Hitler.
Montgomery was inspired to write his first detective novel after reading a book by one of the mid-century doyens of that genre, John Dickson Carr.  He was motivated to write The Case of the Gilded Fly in an unbelievably short time, and it was equally speedily published by Victor Gollanz in 1944. It was the first foray of the detective/don Gervase Fen into the criminal complexities of Oxford. Fen, a professor of English Language, was to feature in most of Montgomery’s subsequent crime writings. The detective novels were all written using the pseudonym of Edmund Crispin. 
Clearly, Gervase Fen may have had a profound influence on Colin Dexter and his ‘scholarly policeman’ Inspector Endeavour Morse.

Concurrently with his writing, Montgomery was keen to follow a musical career.  His early works were small scale piano pieces or anthems.  His masterpiece, apparently, is An Oxford Requiem which was commissioned by the Oxford Bach Choir to celebrate the Festival of Britain in 1951.  I have not heard this work. The Times reviewer believed that this ‘is Montgomery’s most considerable achievement to date; it confirms the suspicion that he is a composer with something of real significance to say.’ According to contemporary reviews, a recording of this work may well be long overdue.

Bruce Montgomery was not a major ‘concert hall’ composer. He had only some twenty-four works published – most of which was choral or vocal music.  However, two key works stand out for me – the above-mentioned Concertino (a modest title) and the Overture to a Fairy Tale. In addition, there are the attractive Scottish Aubade and the Scottish Lullaby – both re-workings of film scores. But the critical thing is, that these four works would be a feather in the cap of any composer – both great and small.  They are interesting, well-wrought and full of character.

When Bruce Montgomery turned his hand to the lucrative business of film music, his compositional career really took off. In total, he provided the score for some forty odd films of greater or lesser importance. Perhaps his greatest achievement was in producing both the music and the screenplay for Raising the Wind – a comical story about music students. David Whittle in his study of the composer, tells the tale that Kenneth Williams and Leslie Phillips were coached on how to conduct Rossini’s William Tell Overture.  Furthermore, Montgomery himself had a cameo role in this film on the podium.
Alas, Montgomery had a propensity to fail to meet the strict deadlines that the film producers imposed. This came to a head when the music for Carry on Cruising had to be completed by Eric Rogers.
The years after ‘Carry on Cruising’ marked a decline in Montgomery’s health and fortunes. Poor health and alcoholism led to long stays in clinics, little work and financial insecurity. He spent the last fifteen years of his life contributing reviews to the Times, editing collections of Science Fiction stories and writing his ninth and last novel, The Glimpses of the Moon. Bruce Montgomery died on 15 September 1978.

Bibliography:
Whittle, David, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: A Life in Music and Books (Ashgate 2007)

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Cedric Thorpe Davie: Royal Mile – Coronation March.

Most listeners associate British ‘concert marches’ with composers such as Edward Elgar and his Pomp and Circumstances 1-5[6] William Walton’s two Coronation offerings, Crown Imperial and the Orb and Sceptre and Eric Coates ubiquitous The Dambusters. Another good source of marches is film music: I recently watched The Yangtse Incident starring Richard Todd which featured a splendid score by the largely forgotten composer Leighton Lucas. This must be one of the most impressive marches written: restrained and deeply moving, yet full of hope. Still on nautical matters, Alan Rawsthorne produced a fine example for the 1953 film The Cruel Sea.
North of the Border, the prolific composer Cedric Thorpe Davie wrote his stirring Royal Mile: Coronation March in 1952 in preparation for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth on 2 June 1953. Clearly, it has not had such a high profile as Walton’s efforts and has been almost forgotten, save for a single recording.

The work was premiered at a Coronation Concert at the Dundee Caird Hall on 8 April 1953. This event also featured Eileen Joyce as soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto, an arrangement of Handel’s Royal Firework Music made by Hamilton Harty, Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture and Johann Strauss II’s Tales from Vienna Woods.  Karl Rankl conducted the Scottish National Orchestra in all these works except for Thorpe Davie’s March, which was conducted by the composer.
The Dundee Courier reported that an audience of some 2700 ‘a Dundee record’ attended the concert. This large audience ‘imparted a gala atmosphere to the concert, which brought out the best from the orchestra.’ As for Thorpe Davie’s march, Royal Mile this work gave a ‘thrilling start’ to the proceedings. The work was ‘full of the spirit of pageantry and nationalistic fervour’: the work ‘under Mr Davie’s workmanlike baton, was given a sound performance.’  Interestingly, Eileen Joyce, who had recently cancelled a concert in Dundee due to illness, played the Grieg concerto ‘with unusual passionate intensity, so much so that a large portion of the audience burst into applause at the end of the first movement.’ Whether this ‘breach of orthodox musical manners’ was a good thing, the reviewer felt the it was a ‘reflection of the emotional grip achieved [by Joyce].’

Ian Lace, reviewing John Wilson and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia’s CD The Land of the Mountain and the Flood: Scottish Orchestral Music (MusicWeb International, February 2000) explained that ‘…Cedric Thorpe Davie (1913-83) was prolific; his output included music for radio, theatre and 24 films. He is represented on this disc by his Royal Mile – Coronation March, composed in 1952 in anticipation of the celebrations of the Coronation of Elizabeth II the following year. The work inevitably has a strong Scottish character.

Colin Scott-Sutherland also reviewing this CD for MusicWeb International (March 2000) wrote: ‘…it is some time since we heard the luscious music of Cedric Thorpe Davie's 'Royal Mile' march, to the strains of which the Royal party, on a coronation visit to the capital [Edinburgh] in 1952 left St Giles - and whose great central melody (the tune Molly Stewart) was, said Edward Greenfield in the Guardian like 'Walton in a kilt', a tune that brings back for me fond memories of 'The Highland Fair' at the Edinburgh Festival of that year.’
Alas I was unable to confirm this citation in the pages of the Manchester Guardian, however it is a wholly appropriate comment.  

Cedric Thorpe Davie: Royal Mile – Coronation March can he heard on The Land of the Mountain and the Flood: Scottish Orchestral Music WHL 2123 This CD has been deleted, and I guess will only be available second hand. Other works on this exciting disc Iain Hamilton’s Scottish Dances, Buxton Orr’s Celtic Suite, Hamish MacCunn’s Highland Memories and his ubiquitous Land of the Mountain and the Flood, and Muir Mathieson’s lovely Suite: From the Highlands

Monday, 12 February 2018

Sea-Croon: The Voice of the Cello in the 1920s

Eric Fogg is barely known to enthusiasts of British music. He is remembered now only for a splendid Bassoon Concerto (1931), the atmospheric tone-poems Sea-Sheen and Merok and the William Blake setting The Seasons for chorus and orchestra. 
The present Poem was composed in 1922 for Fogg’s wife, the cellist Kathleen Moorhouse. There is certainly nothing ‘modernist’ about this piece. In fact, the listener will consider this to be more in the vein of Bantock’s Scottish inspired works.  It is a reflective piece, sometimes hinting at Rachmaninov. The liner notes draw attention to the two major themes – one elegiac and the other noble. Poem is in ternary form with a stormy middle section. This is a poignant and often moving work that does not deserve to remain in obscurity. It is an impressive discovery.

The life and times of John Ireland needs little discussion. The present sonata is one of the composer’s most important works. The Cello Sonata was composed in 1923 and was premiered by Beatrice Harrison and Evlyn Howard-Jones at the Aeolian Hall in London on 4 April 1924.  The Sonata is imbued with a strong sense of place and mystery inspired by the landscape around Chanctonbury Ring in Sussex and the set of Bronze age barrows near Devil’s Jump on Treyford Hill. The music has been described as ‘pervaded with the brooding mystery of the deep past.’
The liner notes explain an important clue to the work’s inner significance. In the opening movement, ‘moderato e sostenuto’, Ireland quotes music from his song ‘The Trellis’, a setting of Aldous Huxley. The lines referred to are ‘None but the flowers have seen/Our white caresses.’ Presumably this is a ‘hidden’ programme to this part of the music.
The slow movement, ‘poco largamente’, is played with rapt attention, allowing the heart-breaking pastoral mood of the music to ‘stand revealed.’   The idealised picture of the landscape is destroyed by the aggressive opening pizzicato in the ‘finale’, ‘con moto e marcato’. This is in complete contrast to what has transpired. This changes the music from a gentle, smiling landscape to something caustic, sometimes frightening and emotionally challenging.
The entire Sonata is played with drama, care and constant recognition of the ‘unity in diversity’ of this great work.

I loved Cyril Scott’s short, but utterly beautiful arrangement of the Irish folk-song ‘The Gentle Maiden’. Originally published for violin and piano in 1912, the present cello version (c.1925) remains unpublished.  Scott captures the magic and the sheer innocence of the original song, and this is reflected in the performance.

I was disappointed that the liner notes give comparatively little detail about Frederic Austin’s ‘exquisite’ Cello Sonata.
This large-scale three movement work was completed in July 1927, and was most likely written for John Barbirolli, who was an accomplished cellist as well as a conductor. Interestingly, Martin Lee-Browne in his study of Austin (Thames, 1999) writes that there is no record of a public performance and that Austin’s daughter-in-law Leily Howell, a professional cellist, was unware of the Sonata’s existence.
I found that this Sonata was a delight to listen to. It is typically rhapsodic in mood, but never meandering. There are occasional hints of Delius, impressionism, and folksong in these pages. In several passages Austin seems to move the argument of the work towards the more ‘advanced’ sound-world of Continental Europe. The heart of the sonata is the thoughtful ‘moderato’ which creates a magical mood.
Frederic Austin’s is fortunate in having several of his orchestral works on CD. This includes the Overture: Sea-Venturers, the Symphony in E major, the Rhapsody: Spring, The Pageant of London and the Richard II Overture.  The present Cello Sonata is a worthy addition to this sadly short list.

For many years, a desideratum of mine was Greville Cooke’s Cormorant Crag for piano solo. A few years ago, Duncan Honeybourne obliged me with the excellent CD A Forgotten English Romantic (EMRCD022). Not only did this feature that wonderfully atmospheric tone-poem for piano, but several other piano pieces by Cooke.  Sea Croon, the eponymous track of this CD, is four minutes of delight. Nodding to the Gaelic ‘ethos’ of Granville Bantock and Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser (1857-1930) this is a work that seems to be based on a folk-song, but probably isn’t. It is a lyrical piece that tugs at the heart strings. I am not sure how Gaelic the mood of the music is, but to me at least, it conjures up mages of the far-distant Western Isles if not Tir-na-nÓg, the Land of the Young so sought after by Arnold Bax.

When I first gained an interest in William Alwyn, the received wisdom was that the earliest acknowledged works were the Rhapsody for Piano Quartet (1939) and the Divertimento for Solo Flute (1940). It was assumed that he had destroyed or suppressed all his student and early music. In recent years there has been a rediscovery of much of these ‘lost’ works. These include several orchestral pieces, some youthful string quartets and a selection of piano pieces. To this listener, at any rate they have proved of considerable musical and artistic interest.
The Two Folk Tunes for cello and piano date from 1929, when the composer was aged around 24 years old. The first, a ‘Meditation on a Norwegian Folk-Song Fragment’, would appear not to be based in any actual tune. This hauntingly beautiful piece looks back to Grieg and his arrangements of the ‘calls of Norwegian cowherds.’  According to the liner notes, Ole Bull’s ‘The Dairymaid’s Sunday’ may have been an inspiration.  The second miniature is an animated little number based on a genuine Irish tune, ‘Who’ll buy my besoms.’ But don’t miss the wistful middle-section.

Benjamin Burrows is usually regarded as an ‘art-song’ composer. However, a glance at his catalogue of music suggests that his interests ranged much wider. There are several attractively titled orchestral works, a large corpus of piano music and many chamber pieces. The present Sonatina for cello and piano was completed in November 1930 and published the following year. Most musicians associate the formal title ‘Sonatina’ with ‘teaching’ music (although Ravel and Ireland disprove this theory in their piano works of that name). It is unfortunate that Burrows did not call this piece a Sonata. Despite the brevity of its four movements, there is a profundity intensity and technical accomplishment. The liner notes explain that it was composed after the break up of a relationship with a student, Jane Vowles. The present soloist, Joseph Spooner has summed up the Sonatina’s aesthetic: [It is] a very lyrical piece that is nevertheless marked by a terseness of expression not generally found until much later in (for example) Rawsthorne.’ 

The liner notes are divided into several sections. After the track listing there are helpful biographies of each composer. These are written by several hands. Photographs of each composer are featured as well as the artists. The second section of the insert are the programme notes for each work. There are the usual performer bios.

This is a well-produced CD. The programme is excellent and imaginative and deserves to be heard at a sitting – with maybe just a tea-break (interval) after the Frederic Austin. I am not sure, but I think all these pieces (except for the John Ireland), are premiere performances. I have noted above the excellence of the readings by the soloists. This is enhanced by the exceptional recording.

Finally, this CD is yet another splendid example of the deep exploration of the British music repertoire by EM Records and the English Music Festival. It reveals to listeners the depth of interest in music that has lain undiscovered for many years. Yet, there is so much more hidden in archives and music libraries of similar quality that need to be excavated. All concerned have done, and are doing, a sterling job.

Track Listing:
Eric FOGG (1903-1939) Poem (1922)
John IRELAND (1879-1962) Sonata (1923)
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970) The Gentle Maiden (Irish Air) (c.1925)
Frederic AUSTIN (1872-1952) Sonata (1927)
Greville COOKE (1894-1992) Sea-Croon (1929)
William ALWYN (1905-85) Two Folk Tunes
Benjamin BURROWS (1891-1966) Sonatina (1930)
Josephs Spooner (cello), Rebeca Omordia (piano, Fogg); Maureen Galea (piano)
EMF CD042
With thanks to MusicWeb Where this CD was first published.  

Friday, 9 February 2018

Maurice Lindsay and Scottish Music: 1947

As part of the Penguin Music Magazine’s overview of music during 1947 in the United Kingdom, the Scottish author, poet and broadcaster Maurice Lindsay reported on ‘Scotland’ for the ‘Northern Diary’ section of the journal. I want to look at the first few paragraphs where he considers the dearth of Scottish ‘classical’ music at the Edinburgh Festival.

The major cultural event in Scotland in 1947 was the City of Edinburgh’s first International Festival of Music and Drama. Lindsay immediately weighs into the politics of the event by noting that the ‘columns of two leading Scottish daily newspapers (The Glasgow Herald and The Scotsman) were filled with controversy over Scotland’s representation’ at this event.  These are references demanding investigation.
Much of the criticism centred on the lack of contemporary Scottish music and drama. There were only two musical works in this category: Ian Whyte’s Piano Concerto and Dr David Stephen’s elegiac Coronach. Stephen (1869-1946) was one of Whyte’s musical teachers. Both works have disappeared from the repertoire, if they were ever really in it. The latter was heard at a London Promenade Concert, on 6 September 1935 and had reasonable success in the years prior to the Second World War.
I looked at the reviews of Ian Whyte’s Piano Concerto which was performed at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on Wednesday 10 September 1947. This may be the subject of a further post, however the consensus seems to be that it is a worthy work that does tend to introduce certain elements of Scottish folk-tunes into its progress.

Maurice Lindsay writes: ‘Many people…feel that a foreign visitor…coming to Scotland for the Festival would naturally expect to be able to get some idea or what contemporary Scottish composers are doing.’ Unfortunately, the two pieces cited above, in Lindsay’s opinion ‘do not give an adequate picture of the creative position in [Scotland.]’
Current listeners have no way of proving or disproving this statement as there are no recordings of these two pieces (that I am aware of) in the catalogues. They may exist in private or corporate collections. On the other hand, Lindsay states that within ‘the last eighteen months or so, Cedric Thorpe Davie’s Symphony in C has been performed under John Barbirolli and Constant Lambert in England, and Walter Susskind and Ian Whyte in Scotland.’ This, in his opinion is a work ‘of undoubted merit and an obvious choice for inclusion in that representative programme of Scottish music which should form a feature of a Scottish Festival.’
Regrettably, Cedric Thorpe Davies’ Symphony has not been given a commercial recording, although a broadcast performance circulates amongst enthusiasts.  This work was composed in 1945 in response to the Daily Express ‘Victory’ Symphony contest:  it was inscribed ‘In honour of my brother.’ The Symphony gained second prize with the first going to Bernard Stevens’ powerful Victory Symphony.
Thorpe Davie explained in a contemporary interview that ‘there are no bombs, guns or sirens in my symphony. It was meant to be cheerful and I hope that is how it sounds.’ Certainly, the work is impressive and is in the mainstream of British post-war symphonic style: it does not resort to obvious Scottish musical clichés.  It deserves to be revived.

There follows a discussion of the position of ‘art’ song at the Festival. Maurice Lindsay reminds readers that ‘Scotland’s greatest contributions to modern music so far are the songs of Francis George Scott. If any proof of this statement need be given, listen to Racheal Liddell singing Scott’s The Discreet Hint.’  Fortunately, there is a CD devoted to Scott’s songs: Moonstruck & other songs, released on the Signum label: it is available as a download.
Lindsay thinks that ‘Scott has written songs which give the impression of having behind them a ripe, unbroken Scottish vocal tradition.’ Unfortunately, Lindsay insisted that this was not the case. Much of the indigenous achievement was discouraged or actively suppressed by the Protestant Reformers in the 16th century.  On the other hand, the musicologist (composer, poet and playwright) John Purser, in a footnote in his book Scottish Music, wrote that 'There was, of course, a vast living tradition among folk-singers, and an unbroken classical tradition of setting of Scots songs, to which most classical composers in Scotland had contributed, from Thomson through MacKenzie to MacCunn.'

Francis George Scott could be likened to Charles Ives: Scott took Scottish traditional music and reformed it in his own image, in the same way as the American took Americana and recreated it with his own unique voice. Nearer to home, Scott preempted Erik Chisholm who took the Scottish bagpipe ‘Piobaireachd’ and created many derivative works utilising his own distinctive personal language.

Maurice Lindsay concludes his discussion of Scottish song by insisting that ‘the mere idea of a Festival of Music in Edinburgh without any of these fine song is, to say the least of it, puzzling and perplexing.
Time has hardly been generous to Scott. As noted above, he is represented by a single CD, albeit a masterly one. There are a few fugitive songs on compilation albums.

It could be argued that Lindsay was here indulging in a little special pleading: thirty years later he was to write the definitive study of Francis George Scott’s music and his place in the Scottish [Literary] Renaissance.






Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Sappho, Shropshire and Super-Tramp: A Collection of Modern English Art-Song

The CD liner notes begins with a sobering reflection on British music-making. Richard Carder notes that ‘[The English Poetry and Song Society] competitions for composers started in 1992, celebrating the bi-centenary of the birth of Shelley, and continued every year after that with anniversaries of various poets, as a way of increasing interest in English Art-Song, which has always been a poor relation compared with German Lieder, French Mélodies, and Italian Arias; – as Hubert Parry noted in his History of Music, ‘The English prefer foreign music!’
I have always been in the minority in this matter. Although I enjoy Schubert, Wolf, Duparc et. al. my preference has always been for English art-song. The first major work in this genre that I heard was John Shirley Quirk’s performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ magical Songs of Travel (Robert Louis Stevenson). It has been a genre that has captivated and fascinated me ever since.
This new release from Divine Art, sponsored by The English Poetry and Song Society contains music by eight Society composers, ‘who have all featured as prize-winners in past competitions, including the three complete cycles [alluded to in] the album title, and a song by each of the four past chairmen of the society.’ It is a potpourri of fascinating music.
Of the 52 songs on this 2-CD set, I will note several highlights-for me.  

The main event are the three song cycles by Ivor Gurney, William Carnell and Dennis Wickens. These are settings of poetry by Sappho, A.E. Housman and W.H. Davies respectively.
Clearly Ivor Gurney is the best-kent composer on this album, with many CDs devoted to his vocal music. Gurney’s Seven Sappho Songs were selected from poet William Bliss Carman’s (1861–1929) volume Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics. This book was an adaptation of several fragments by the Aeolic Greek lyric poet. Three songs were originally published by Oxford University Press, with the remaining four being edited by Richard Carder as part of a project to realise Gurney’s unpublished songs.  I understand that this is the first recording of Gurney’s complete ‘Sappho’ cycle. These are beautiful songs that are full of passion and emotion: they perfectly reflect the blue skies and seas of the Isle of Lesbos.
It is hardly surprising that Housman is represented on this disc. For many years, he was one of the foremost poets set by English composers. William Carnell has selected six songs from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, including such favourites as ‘In Summertime on Bredon Hill’, ‘Along the Field’ and ‘O see how thick the gold cup flowers’. They are all well-crafted songs and that are in the trajectory of earlier settings. A Country Lover is splendidly sung by Johnny Herford. The work was first performed in 2007.

When I was a teenager, I read W.H. Davies Autobiography of a Super Tramp. This fascinating ‘romp’ around Great Britain, the United States and Canada appealed to my sense of adventure and history. It was not until many years later that I discovered that Davies had also written poetry. Dennis Wickens has set several of these verses. Alas, the liner notes give no information about this work, which is a pity. For me, it is the most important and vibrant work on this CD.

The second CD presents several standalone songs by a variety of composers as detailed in the batting-order above. These set an eclectic variety of poets, including relative rarities in the English art-song tradition such as Carol Ann Duffy, Rabindranath Tagore, Hart Crane and Edith Sitwell. More common sources for songs include Walter de la Mare, Christina Rossetti, A.E. Housman and Thomas Hardy.
I enjoyed most of these songs, however a few especially captured my imagination. I always admire a composer who sets a text that has become a standard in another composer’s oeuvre. Brian Daubney’s ‘Bredon Hill’ is a satisfying take on a song that has been defined by George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Equally enjoyable is Daubney’s version of Humbert Wolfe’s poem ‘The Dream City’. This has been previously set by Gustav Holst. It is one of my favourite poems, and Daubney rises to the challenge.
Another interesting and imaginative song is Graham Garton’s ‘The Shade-Catchers’, with text written by Charlotte Mew.
Robert Hugil’s settings of Rabindranath Tagore are particularly lovely with an impressive sound-world that compliments the ‘profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse’ from this largely-forgotten poet.
One of the most delightful songs on this second CD is Janet Oates settings of Walter de la Mare’s ‘The Cupboard’, complete with ‘lollipops’ and ‘Banbury Cakes’ and hand-claps. It is a little masterpiece.
My favourite song here is Simon Willink’s heart-achingly beautiful realisation of his own poem ‘Sea and Sky’.
There are plenty more interesting numbers, each of which deserves a detailed analysis.

The liner notes have been assembled by Richard Carder, David Crocker and several of the composers. They vary in information, with Carder’s comments on Ivor Gurney being essay-length and notes on several of the composers and their contribution being little more than a couple of short paragraphs. I was not sure why Alfred Warren (1926-2014) is mentioned in these biographical notes, as I could not find any music by him: I think that he is, in fact, a poet who wrote the text for ‘My Whole World’, set my David Crocker. But I could be wrong.
The texts of all the songs are provided which is helpful, although I would have liked the source of each text to have been included in the track-listings. Dates of composition were not included in the track-listings and are not always given in the liner notes.  For biographical details of the performers, the listener is invited to visit the Divine Art Website.

The performance of these songs is typically very good. Both Sarah Leonard and Johnny Herford bring considerable skill, magic and understanding to this music. The words are always clearly enunciated and are immediately understandable.  The piano part is well-executed by Nigel Foster.

This is an excellent exploration of (mainly) contemporary English art-song, written in largely, but not exclusively traditional style, and goes a long way to prove that the genre is alive and well in the early 21st century. 

Track Listing:
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937) Seven Sappho Songs [14:38]
William CARNELL (b.1938) A Country Lover [18:42]
Michael WATTS (b.1937) Gypsy Girl [20:07]
Dennis WICKENS (b.1926) This Life [23:59]
Simon WILLINK (1929-2015) Sea and Sky [4:13]
David CROCKER (b.1943) A Great Time [1:59], My Whole World [1:46]
Sulyen CARADON (b.1942) Silver [2:32]
Brian DAUBNEY (b.1929) Bredon Hill [3:56], Boot and Saddle [1:34], Because I could not stop for death [2:35], The Dream City [4:32], Waiting Both [2:08]
Graham GARTON (b.1929) Leisure [5:05], The Eagle [2:32], The Song of the Secret [2:45], The Shade Catchers [1:23]
Frank HARVEY (b.1939) Dawn [3:58], The Convergence of the Twain [4:43], I so liked spring [1:10], Remember [5:02]
Robert HUGILL (b.1955) Voyages III [4:24], Gitanjali XIII [3:48], Gitanjali II [4:06], The Pillar [3:01]
Janet OATES (b.1970) Bee: Dance [3:53], Money [2:13], The King of China’s Daughter [3:18], The Cupboard [2:18]
Sarah Leonard (soprano), Johnny Herford (baritone) Nigel Foster (piano)
DIVINE ART dda21230
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Ignaz Moscheles: A Composer's Chagrin.

I have adopted Ignaz Moscheles as an ‘honorary Englishman’ so I found this short anecdote rather amusing. Of course, it is not side-splittingly funny in today’s terms but is a little bit of gentle humour. It is worth recording.

Ignaz Moscheles, the virtuoso, composer, and teacher, had one fault that we must say was not confined to him alone. In teaching he used frequently to forget the purpose for which the pupil was present, and instead of using every minute for the pupil's advancement, he would take up much time in relating his experiences and reminiscences, and telling about the different composers and notable people he had met in his long and busy life. And his pupils were oftentimes not averse to this, for besides being very entertaining, it occasionally concealed the fact that the lessons were not as well prepared as they might have been.
In one of his classes were Sir Arthur Sullivan, and the violinist, Karl Feininger [1]. As they came to recitation one morning all the class was struck with the downcast expression on the face of the usually smiling Moscheles, and as the pupils came in each one would exclaim: ‘Goodness gracious, Herr Professor, what is the matter; are you ill?’ But never a word did they get in reply, only a wave of the hand toward the piano, as much as to say, ‘You are here to study music and not to pry into my feelings. Do not chatter to me; sit down and attend to the lesson.’
The last pupil to enter was Feininger, and he being Moscheles' pet pupil, felt brave enough to insist that the dear Herr Professor tell his anxious pupils what had occurred to so cast a cloud over his genial spirits.
"Well," said Moscheles, ‘I will tell you.’ So, with laboured breath he began: "I got up this morning I dressed myself I went to eat my breakfast there was no butter I sent my Dienstmadchen [maidservant] for some butter’ and then his voice burst forth in agony, almost in sobs, ‘and what do you think she brought it in? That butter was wrapped in a page of my G minor Concerto’. [2]
W Francis Gates, Anecdotes of Great Musicians (Weekes & Co., London,1896) (with minor edits)

Notes:
[1] Karl Feininger (1844-1922), a German American pianist. Was also a performer and teacher.
[2] Ignaz Moscheles’ Piano Concerto No.3 in g minor (1820) is fortunately still extant. It can be heard on YouTube in its entirety, including the page noted above”  


Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Ernest Tomlinson First Suite of English Folk Dances

I was delighted to hear ‘Dick’s Maggot’ from Ernest Tomlinson’s First Suite of English Folk Dances on Classic FM the other day. (12 January 2018). This suite is a charming little bit of rural England dished up for full orchestra. Fortunately, there are plenty more tunes where this comes from. The 1st Suite has six dances, all with evocative titles: ‘Jenny Pluck Pears’, ‘Ten Pound Lass’, ‘Dick’s Maggot’, ‘Nonesuch’, ‘Hunt the Squirrel’ and ‘Woodcock’. I am not so sure that Squirrel Hunts are quite the thing in 2018. However, the entire suite makes for enjoyable listening. And the good news is there is a 2nd Suite. More about that later, perhaps.

The story of Ernest Tomlinson’s (1924-2015) enthusiasm for English folk-tunes deserves to be recalled, with the help of the liner notes of the Marco Polo CD (see below for disc details). Sixty-seven years ago, the English Folk-Dance and Song Society held a major New Year Festival of Folk-Dance at the Royal Albert Hall (5 January 1951) The 27-year-old Tomlinson and his wife were present in the audience. At the end of the first act, two fiddlers played the old English dance Jenny Pluck Pears. On a darkened stage, three couples, dressed in 17th century costumes danced. Tomlinson was hooked by the magic, the history and the music. Shortly after the concert, he began work on the score of the First Suite of English Folk Dances. It was completed the same year.
Ernest Tomlinson utilised John Playford’s book The Dancing Master, first published in 1650. The six dances noted above were extracted and arranged for orchestra.
For many years, Dick’s Maggot was used as the signature tune to Steve Race’s Invitation to Music programme on the BBC Radio 4.

The Gramophone (March 1995) reviewer is generous with his praise. He considers that ‘Dick’s Maggott’ will be ‘the most familiar number from the suite’ but suggests that the ‘Hunt the Squirrel’ is hardly less delightful.’  He concluded by insisting that the ‘whole suite deserves to rank as a classic in the British orchestral repertory.’  Alas, although some of these dances are occasionally heard on the radio, this Suite has never really become popular, like other works such as Vaughan Williams’ Folksong Suite and John Rutter’s Suite for Strings. 

The performance of ‘Dick’s Maggot’ on Classic FM noted above, was played by Iain Sutherland and his Concert Orchestra. (ALC1192). The entire First Suite of English Folk Dances was released in 1994 on Marco Polo 8.223515. It is played by the Slovak Radio Orchestra conducted by the composer. This CD is available as a download. ‘Dick’s Maggot’ and ‘Hunt the Squirrel’ are available as a sample on YouTube. 

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Richard Rodney Bennett: Marimba Concerto

I am delighted that Chandos have ‘restarted’ their series of CDs featuring the orchestral music of Richard Rodney Bennett. Several years ago (2006) the company issued Volume 1 of what promised to be a ‘cycle’ of the composer’s music. This CD (CHAN 10389) included the Partita, Reflections on a Sixteenth Century Tune, Songs before Sleep, and Reflections on a Scottish Folk Song. Richard Hickox conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra: soloists included Paul Watkins, cello and Jonathan Lemalu, baritone.  To be fair to Chandos, there were subsequent releases of RRB’s music: The Film Music, in 2000; the opera The Mines of Sulphur in 2005 and a fine selection of ‘standard’ songs by several composers and sung by RRB. This latter is one of my favourite CDs. His voice has the same impact on me as the late, great Peter Skellern.

The main event the new CD (CHSA5202) is the Symphony No.3 (1987). Also featured is Summer Music (1982), the Sinfonietta (1984) and the present Marimba Concerto.

For the curious, a Marimba is an instrument often associated with Mexico, but long included in the percussion section of large symphony orchestras. The technology consists of graduated wooden blocks suspended on wooden resonators. It is played with drumsticks. Several important Concertos have been composed for this instrument, including those by Paul Creston and Darius Milhaud.  

In 1984 RRB had composed a work for solo marimba called After Syrinx II. It was dedicated to William Moersch. The inspiration for this piece was based on Claude Debussy’s well-known piece for solo flute, Syrinx (1913).
Anthony Meredith (Richard Rodney Bennett: The Complete Musician, Omnibus Press, London, 2010) takes up the story of the work’s genesis.  He cites Moersch recalling that ‘Richard suggested that he would write a marimba concerto for me’ but this was dependent on receiving a commission and the promise of a performance.  This was duly agreed, and a National Endowment for the Arts Solo Recitalist Fellowship was gained ‘to present a solo recital at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.’ The promise of a New York performance was a sufficient ‘enticement’ to the Lehigh Chamber Orchestra to take on this piece. 
Moersch (op.cit.) notes that composer apparently had ‘balance issues between the marimba and the orchestra.’ What resulted was a two-movement work. The first, Con moto, was written for a chamber orchestra with the marimba scored ‘in the more traditional hand-to-hand manner’, accompanied by the orchestra. The more technically demanding moments were relegated to solo cadenzas. The second movement, Con brio is a different kettle of fish. Meredith (op. cit.) states that here the soloist ‘at all times holds the centre stage, with the orchestra responding the best it can…’ The climax of the work ‘where the marimba seems to speak on behalf of all the players is a cadenza which is as Moersch notes, is ‘perhaps one of the most athletic and demanding the repertoire.’’
The work was completed in New York City, 17 January 1988. The premiere followed on 11 March of that year. The Lehigh Chamber Orchestra was conducted by Donald Spieth at Muhlenberg College Center for the Arts, at Allentown, Pennsylvania. 
The first British performance of the Marimba Concerto was at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon on 21 May 2001.

Robert Matthew-Walker (ClassicalSource.com - October 2017) reviewing this CD insisted that ‘the epic Marimba Concerto, an innovative piece for the composer, moving from a colorful and lyrical first movement to highly virtuosic passages and strikingly athletic cadenzas. The demanding solo part is tackled here by the multi-award-winning Colin Currie nowadays seen as the world's finest and most daring percussionist, as well as a champion of contemporary music.’

The Gramophone reviewer (Edward Seckerson, January 2018) writes that the Concerto for marimba and chamber orchestra ‘is an excellent example of Bennett exploring the possibilities of a particular instrumental ‘palette’ and finding music which will best express its character. Dreamy and sensuous. It’s as if the marimba…has insinuated its way into someone else’s ‘trip’. It assumes a super-discreet, obligato-like role outside of the cadenzas and the only concerto-like confrontation occurs in the second movement, where it displays an uncharacteristic defiance.’

From a personal point of view, I enjoyed this work for the wonderful synthesis of jazz inspired passages, light music, something a little more modernistic and the sheer technical virtuosity of the solo part.

There is a performance on YouTube of the Marimba Concerto by Filippo Lattanzi, marimba and the Orchestra Cantelli conducted by Flavio Emilio Scogna. 

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Ancient Greece: Musical Inspirations

I through-listened to this CD, although I did take a few breaks for a mince pie and a cup of tea. I consider that it is a ‘concept’ album, so popular with progressive rock enthusiasts in the 1970s. By this, I mean an album where the sum is greater than the several parts.

The opening track, Seikilos Epitaph is, according to the liner notes, the ‘world’s oldest surviving complete musical composition.’ The Greek text (lyrics) and the musical notation are engraved on a marble tombstone discovered in 1883 in the ancient city of Tralles, which is near to the modern Turkish city of Aydin. Apparently, the hymn is dedicated to Seikilos’ wife or son:
As long as you live, shine,
Let nothing grieve you beyond measure
For your life is short,
And time will claim its toll.

Fortunately, Rody Van Gemert includes a short essay on the ‘ancient’ tuning systems. This is not necessary to an appreciation of the music, but does add a technical understanding to the recital.
This Epitaph is reprised in the final track in a different tuning.

The First Delphic Hymn to Apollo was composed around 128 BCE. The liner notes explain that the ‘score’ was ‘found inscribed on slab of marble in May 1893, located in the ruins of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi’. It is the earliest surviving musical composition that can be attributed to a composer by name, Athenios, son of Athenios. It has been arranged for guitar by Graham Lynch, who explains that ‘the re-working…was an imaginative attempt to connect with this melody and re-create it for modern ears. Although I arranged the piece, the final recording owes much to Rody’s [the guitarist] inventive use of timbre.’
I am not sure that it does much for me. Perhaps something has been lost in the past 2056 odd years.

As noted in the above track-listing, several of these works are composed or arranged by Graham Lynch. It is not necessary to provide biographical details as these are given on his excellent webpage as well as a two-page bio in the present CD’s liner notes. I have noted elsewhere that the key thing to bear in mind when listening to Lynch’s music is that he has developed an eclectic style which ranges from literarily, Ancient Music as presented on this CD to contemporary ‘art’ music as well as pop-infused compositions, jazz and a love for the ‘tango.’

Graham Lynch has defined his Greek pieces as follows: ‘I am not trying to relate to a historical Greece, but to the vivid ancient Greece of my imagination. And what stands behind all this music is not just that we understand the past as facts and events, but that by necessity we recreate it in a way that breathes meaning and life into our present day.’

Sing, Memory is an impressive work by any standards. It is timeless in the sense that Messiaen can be timeless – in other words the listener is not aware of the ticking of the clock.  The music imagines that Daphne, after ‘her transformation into a tree, reviews episodes from her life with cool detachment, regret, and outbursts of passion.’ It is composed for guitar and harpsichord.

Lynch’s Daphne Prelude, written for solo guitar. This was a precursor of Sing, Memory. It is short, meditative and quite simply beautiful. 

More dynamic, is the Apollo Toccate which is an impressive work lasting more than 17 minutes. It is conceived in nine sections, which can be performed in any order. The musical influences here are Venetian lute music and Baroque Toccatas. The listener is aware of the work’s continuity as well as an almost infinite variety. I understand that the Toccate is a fiendishly difficult work for the soloist to perform. It may well explain why it has not gained a place in the guitarists’ repertoire. Listening to this magical work, that seems infused with the myth of Apollo, reflecting both the sparkle of the sun and the god’s relation to the Muses, poetry and music.  I feel that it is one of the most impressive pieces I have encountered for solo guitar. It is a masterpiece.

The final contribution by Graham Lynch are the Three Aegean Pieces.  The first, ‘Cythera’, was inspired by Poulenc’s ‘L'Embarquement pour Cythère’ (after the painting by Watteau). This is not ‘cod’ Poulenc, but certainly there is no doubt as the source of inspiration.  The second piece, ‘Geranos’, is based on an ancient Greek dance. Unsurprisingly, Lynch has used the rhythms of his favourite dance form – the tango. The final number, ‘The Song of Seikilos’ nods to Ravel. Some of that composer’s early piano pieces were written ‘in the manner of’ other composers, such as Borodin and Faure. As far as I can tell, Lynch has used an ancient Greek melody and has harmonised it in several different ways. Lynch suggests that this creates as ‘music that steps outside of time.

I know virtually nothing about the American ‘hobo’ musician Harry Partch (1901-74) save that he was an ‘experimental’ composer who made use of microtonal scales and tunings. Microtonal meaning the ‘notes’ in the gaps between the semitones and tones of the ‘well-tempered’ scale. He also devised several ‘new’ instruments. The present work, Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales has been arranged by Rody Van Gemert. The liner notes explain that Partch did not attempt to reconstruct ancient Greek music, but used the scales as a springboard for his imagination. The work was originally scored for bass marimba and a harmonic canon, which is an instrument in the zither family. The two pieces make use of the Olympos Pentatonic and the Archytas Enharmonic scales. Listeners need not puzzle over the theoretical underpinning of this music. It is quite simply impressive.

Maurice Ravel provided the piano accompaniments for the delightful Five Greek Folk-songs between 1904 and 1906. They were originally performed in the Greek language, but were later translated into French by Ravel’s friend Michel Calvocoressi. It was the composer’s first foray into the art of arranging folk tunes and were originally conceived for a music lecture. They were collected by Calvocoressi on the island of Chios. The texts of the songs deal with love and courtship. The present arrangement for harpsichord and guitar was made by Graham Lynch.  They make attractive numbers, but I must admit to preferring Ravel’s original, sung by Nora Gubisch or Gerard Souzay with piano accompaniment.

Canadian-Finnish composer Matthew Whittall has provided the score for the large-scale essay for harpsichord and guitar, The Wine-Dark Sea. The composer explains that the mythology of Greece and the Orient were important formative factors in his upbringing, giving him a sense of belonging. The present work reveals ‘the iconic, archetypal ‘Mother Sea’ and its numberless shades of blue, the quality of the sunlight, the smell of flowers and herbs in the air. These are the impressions informing The Wine-Dark Sea, a dreamlike postcard written after the fact, through a haze of memory.’
It is a remarkable work for a ‘northerner’ that captures the play of light, the mystery and the magic of that celebrated sea-scape.  Along with Graham Lynch’s Apollo Toccate, this is (for me) the most impressive works on this highly imaginative CD.

It almost seems redundant to insist that the performance on this exceptional CD is perfect, impressive, stunning, expressive, balanced and beautiful. The sound quality is ideal. The liner notes provide all the information needed to appreciate the imaginative music on the CD.
The entire package makes a perfect ‘Concept Album’ that reveals ‘the heart of the music on this disc…’ as a hugely successful ‘attempt to understand music as a living continuum.’

Track Listing:
Ancient Greece: Musical Inspirations
Seikilos Epitaph (tuning: Ptolemy’s even diatonic)]
Graham LYNCH (b.1957) Sing, Memory
Harry PARTCH (1901-74) Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales (arr. R. V. Gemert): Olympos’ Pentatonic, Archytas’ Enharmonic
Graham LYNCH: Three Aegean Pieces: Cythera (à la manière de Poulenc), Geranos, Song of Seikilos (à la manière de Ravel)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Five Greek Songs (arr. G. Lynch): Song for the bride, Yonder, at the church, What gallant can compare with me, Song of the girls gathering pistachios, Very merrily!
ATHENIOS SON OF ATHENIOS: First Delphic Hymn to Apollo (arr. G. Lynch)
Graham LYNCH: Apollo, Toccate
Matthew WHITTALL (b.1975) The Wine-dark sea IV 
Graham LYNCH: Daphne Prelude
Seikilos Epitaph (tuning: Archytas’ diatonic)
Rody Van Gemert (guitar), Assi Karttunen (harpsichord)
Rec. Östersundom church, Helsinki 20–22 April 2015,
PILFINK JJVCD 182 

Monday, 22 January 2018

A.J. Potter: Rhapsody under a High Sky for orchestra

I mentioned in my New Year (2018) post that I had never come across the Irish composer, A.J. Potter. I promised a further exploration of his music in a later submission.

The piece of music that first struck me was his gorgeous Rhapsody under a High Sky which was included on an interesting Marco Polo CD released in 1996. The Rhapsody was the only piece by Potter on this disc of ‘Romantic Irish Music’. Other works included Three Irish Pictures by Gerald Victory, Padraig O’ Connor’s Introspect, John Larchet’s Nocturne for orchestra ‘By the Waters of Moyle,’ Arthur Duff’s Echoes of Georgian Dublin and Sean O Riada’s The Banks of Sullane. I found all these pieces attractive, enjoyable and often quite moving. They deserve the attention of music lovers, especially those with a taste for romanticism and impressionism.

A.[rchibald] J.[ames] Potter was born in Belfast on 22 September 1918 and died at Greystones, County Wicklow on 5 July 1980. In his early years he moved to Kent where he was brought up by relatives. Potter gained entry to the choir school at All Saints, Margaret Street in London and subsequently to Clifton College in Bristol. He won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he was a pupil of RVW. After war service, Potter moved to Dublin where he was Vicar Choral at St Patrick's Cathedral.  In 1953, he was awarded a Doctorate of Music from Trinity College. For much of his career he was Professor of Composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, retiring from this post in 1973.  A.J. Potter died on 5 July 1980, aged only 62 years.

In 1951, Radio Éireann had offered the Carolan Prize to encourage native Irish composers. This was for a short orchestral work that would be performed by the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra. The prize money was £100 and the competition was adjudicated by Sir Arnold Bax. Potter submitted the present Rhapsody as well as a humorous Overture to a Kitchen Comedy. He won first prize.
It has been suggested by Patrick Zuk in his 2007 thesis ‘A.J. Potter (1918-1980): The career and creative achievement of an Irish composer in social and cultural context’, that the musical material of the Rhapsody may have originated in student compositions prepared for RVW at the Royal College of Music between 1936-8. There is no proof of this: no sketches have survived.
The CD liner notes advocate that the inspiration of the Rhapsody were the paintings of Belfast-born Paul Henry (1876-1958). According to Artnet, Henry’s work displays ‘inventive landscape paintings: lush vistas of the West of Ireland, replete with towering cumulonimbus clouds and calm lakes and channels surrounded by rural villages, landscapes, and geography endemic to …[Ireland]. Artistic influences included Jean Francois Millet, Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin. Also, critical to his style, was a period of study at James McNeil Whistler’s studio in Paris, during 1898.

Back to Potter’s Rhapsody under a High Sky. If the putative listener needs any recommendation it is that Potter was, as mentioned above, a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The present work has echoes of the elder composer, most especially of his In the Fen Country, The Lark Ascending and the Norfolk Rhapsodies. On the other hand, Potter does not appear to quote any actual folk-song, although there are modal inflections and the melodies do have the sweep and flexibility of folksong. 

In a ‘draft’ programme note, cited in Zuk (op.cit.) the composer wrote that the Rhapsody ‘pictured the idyllic beauty of Irish scenery. Particularly that of Connemara, Achill and the west, where the characteristically Irish high sky, blue mountains, white cottages and wind-ruffled waters were so effectively captured in paint and on canvas by that prince of landscape painters, Paul Henry.’ 
Potter then remarks on the formal style of the music. 'It is a tone-picture where the ‘basic format of melody, trio and melody is prolonged and concluded by a rhapsodical violin solo whose soaring notes carry the [mind], ear and eye across that ruffled water, over the blue mountains and into the fading distance of the high Irish sky.’
Musical tropes in the Rhapsody include parallel triadic motion that immediately reminds the listener of Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony with the clashes presenting a subtle bitonality. The orchestration is effective, with some beautiful Debussy-like moments for woodwind and muted strings.
Bax, in a note to the composer, suggested that Potter may come to feel that the work was too long. Listening to this piece in 2018 has the opposite effect on me: I wish that this beautiful music would go on forever. It seems to sum up the Irish Landscape with a senstive poetic response to it.  

A.J. Potter: Rhapsody under a High Sky for orchestra can be found on Marco Polo 8.223804: it has been deleted from the catalogue as a CD. However, it is available from Amazon as a download and as streaming. It is also included in Naxos’ own Music Library. 

Friday, 19 January 2018

Marcus Blunt: Orchestral Works on Metier

Marcus Blunt is an English composer, born in Birmingham in 1947. After piano lessons from his father, he began his first tentative steps at composition. He writes that his interest in music did not ‘take off’ until he was fourteen years old. He went up to University College of Wales at Aberystwyth, graduating in 1970. His biographical notes suggest that regularly moved to a new house, with residences in Warwickshire, Manchester, York and London. His career was not limited to music: he had several occupations including warehouse packer, photographic processor and a department manager at a music publisher. In 1976 he settled in Derby and taught pupils to play woodwind instruments. In 1990 Blunt, and his wife Maureen, headed just north of the Scottish border where they now live. In 1997 the Dumfries Music Club appointed him as their Honorary Composer-in-Residence.
Marcus Blunt’s musical style is hard to pin down which is great, as it means that he is not derivative.  His music is immediately approachable, but never simplistic or naïve. Composers that may have provided some influence may include Michael Tippett and Olivier Messiaen. The general mood of his music is romantic, tinged with a contemporary flavour, but never overtly modernistic.

I liked Marcus Blunt’s well-thought out and pleasing Piano Concerto. This was composed between 1992 and 1995. Surprisingly, Blunt found some difficulty in gaining this Concerto a premiere. It was not until 2005, when Murray McLachlan took an interest in the composer’s piano music, that the possibility of a performance began to become a reality. In 2006, McLachlan issued a recording of Blunt’s piano works on Dunelm Records DRD 0269. This was reviewed by Jonathan Woolf on MusicWeb International. It was reissued on the Divine Art Label in 2014. I have not heard this CD. But, based on the reviews, it is hardly surprising that McLachlan finally turned his attention to the Piano Concerto.
To my mind, this three-movement work is more of a chamber concerto. It is typically restrained, often reflective and only relatively occasionally does it erupt into something more dramatic, such as the conclusion of the opening ‘molto moderato’. Yet this is all to the good. I found the entire concerto deeply moving and completely satisfying. The balance of soloist and orchestra is first-rate, with some beautifully executed piano technique and stimulating orchestration. I hope that it can become established as a concert-hall favourite, but his seems highly unlikely when concert promoters have Rach. 2 and Tchaik. 1 to select for the umpteenth time…

I moved on to the tone-poem, Aspects of Saturn for string orchestra. The work is prefaced by two passages: one from Keats’ Hyperion and the other from Virgil’s Eclogues. Both quotations explore the contradiction of the god Saturn’s nature. He is the deity of agriculture, the founder of civilisation and world order: his nature exemplifies self-discipline and limitation, but also manifests ‘perseverance, ambition and inspiration.’ It seems a lot of attributes to work up into a musical composition lasting just under seven minutes. Yet this is a beautiful work that seems to grow organically from the opening material. Perfectly formed and quite simply gorgeous. 

The captivating Bassoon Concerto began life as a four-movement Sonata for bassoon and piano, entitled Lorenzo the Much-Travelled Clown composed in 1989. It was premiered by the present soloist in 2001 and was latterly included on her album A Much-Travell’d Clown in 2017. At some undisclosed time, Blunt reworked the piano part for string orchestra. He also took the opportunity of including an extra movement, based on his 1984 Scotch Song for solo bassoon, now given a string accompaniment.
There is always a danger with any work composed for the bassoon, that it deteriorates into a study for a clown or a drunk. Blunt has avoided this temptation by writing much deeply-felt music that explores the ruminative and introverted aspect of the instrument’s character. This is especially apparent in the ‘Elegy’. Naturally, the vibrant and humorous aspect of the solo instrument is not ignored. The finale, which reprises earlier themes, is both jaunty and cheeky. Altogether, this an important and thoroughly enjoyable work for bassoon and orchestra which ought to be in the repertoire of all bassoonists.

I am always interested by a new (at least to me) symphony. I happily admit to it being one of my two favourite ‘forms’ - the other being the piano concerto.
Blunt’s Symphony No.2 has its origins in a substantial work composed for the same forces as Schubert’s Octet (1824). This was a five-movement work, The Throstle-Nest in Spring which was first performed at the Wigton (Cumberland) Festival in 1991. Blunt explains that he came to regard this score as being appropriate for orchestral treatment. It subsequently ‘metamorphosed’ into a four-movement Symphony scored for ‘a modest sized orchestra’ with no trombones, tuba or percussion, except timpani.
This is not a long work, lasting for just over 16 minutes. However, there is considerable diversity of mood, with a ‘bright and cheerful’ opening movement, followed by a ‘nocturnal’ andante. The ‘scherzo’ is more profound than is often the case with this form, especially in the trio section, which is ‘deeply tranquil’ in mood. The finale is a summing up of what has preceded: this is one of Blunt’s common structural traits. The work ends enthusiastically.

The liner notes written by the composer offer a good insight into these works. ‘Final’ dates of works would have been helpful. Notes on Marcus Blunt and the performers are included. The quality of the recording is ideal. 

This is a fascinating retrospective of Marcus Blunt’s orchestral music. The four works are well-chosen to provide an excellent introduction to his musical idiom. I look forward to hearing more from this composer, possibly including the Sinfonietta and the tone-poem (?) Once in a Western Island. Finally, I wonder what happened to Symphony No.1?

Track Listing:
Marcus BLUNT (b.1947)
Piano Concerto (1992/95)
Aspects of Saturn for string orchestra (?)
Concertino for Bassoon and string orchestra (?)
Symphony No.2 (?)
Murray McLachlan (piano), Lesley Wilson (bassoon) Manchester Camerata/Stephen Threlfall
METIER msv 28570 

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Half Centennial: Revisiting Anthony Milner’s Chamber Symphony, op.24 (1968)

Anthony Milner is often regarded as a composer of music largely inspired by the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, his musical achievement was far wider, with a fair number of ‘absolute’ works, including the present Chamber Symphony.

Milner was born in Bristol on 13 May 1925 into a devout Christian family. After schooling at the Benedictine-run Douai School in Berkshire, he studied at the Royal College of Music with Herbert Fryer and R.O. Morris. There were further lessons from the émigré composer Mátyás Seiber. Much of Milner’s career was spent teaching: at Morley College, where he befriended Michael Tippet, the extra-mural department of music at London University, King’s College, Goldsmith College and the Royal College of Music. Milner had a strong transatlantic connection with appointments at Loyola University and the University of Western Ontario. Anthony Milner died in Spain on 22 September 2002.

The Chamber Symphony was composed during 1967/68. As the title implies, it was scored for a small orchestra with no trumpets, trombones or percussion. Other works written around this time included the Festival Te Deum commissioned by the Leicestershire Schools Music Festival as well as several anthems.

The first performance of the Chamber Symphony was given on 31 March 1968 in the Woodford Green Town Hall during the final concert of the Woodford Music Society season. The New Cantata Orchestra of London was conducted by James Stobart.
Dominic Gill reviewing the concert for The Financial Times (1 April 1968) wrote that ‘the Chamber Symphony is a short work, barely 15 minutes long…its three movements are in no sense avant-garde; the music is mild, serious, honest and straightforward, not overtly derivative – though one senses a kind of compromise between Vaughan Williams and the second Viennese school.  It is lyrical: not the harsh lyricism of Schoenberg’s [two] ‘Kammersymphonie’, but something more childlike and comfortable.’
Whether Schoenberg’s ‘exemplars’ would be regarded as ‘harsh lyricism’ in 2018 is a matter of opinion. These (Schoenberg) are well-constructed works that are dynamic and often quite beautiful. It is also unfair to accuse Milner’s Chamber Symphony of being ‘childlike.’ The work is mature, well-constructed and masterfully orchestrated. Although, I do concede that there is a charming innocence about much of this music, especially in the final movement.  
Gill (op.cit.) describes the progress of the music: ‘The first movement is a good-humoured allegro, developed from the material in the opening bars, followed by a denser – and lonely – ‘adagio’, in which the orchestral playing several times obscured what must have been a high point – as, for example, the rather beautiful horn figuration taken up by the flute that slides wistfully to the oboe at the movement’s end.  The final ‘allegro’ is a virtuoso rondo, rhythmically the most interesting of the three, with some Stravinskian textures that work up to a strong climax.’ 
The Financial Times review concludes by suggesting that ‘the orchestra…barely held it together. Judgment will have to wait for a much more definitive performance.’  

The New Cantata Orchestra of London and James Stobart gave at least one other performance of the Chamber Symphony. This was on 25 April 1968 at the St Pancras Town Hall, Euston Road, London in a Redcliffe Concert of British Music. There is a short review of this concert in the Daily Telegraph (26 April 1968) ‘I.A.’ began by noting that the concert had some unfamiliar music. It opened with Haydn’s Symphony No.83 ‘The Hen’, which is hardly the best-known (37 current recordings compared to 94 for the Symphony No.94 ‘Surprise Symphony’). This was followed by Alan Rawsthorne’s accomplished Divertimento for chamber orchestra (1961-62) and Francis Routh’s Violin Concerto.  This latter work was receiving its premiere: the soloist was Yfrah Neaman. The final work in the concert was the first ‘London’ performance of Milner’s Chamber Symphony.
I.A. wrote that Milner’s work was in ‘another class’ to the ‘meander[ing]’ Routh. He thinks that in the Symphony ‘sometimes...the outer movements seem to be musicians' music, not lyrical enough to take flight, but then by contrast, the middle, slow movement did just that, with woodwind weavings and a memorable free-ranging horn tune.’ Milner's score ‘showed skilled planning, writing and imagining.’
It seems that the New Cantata Orchestra of London and James Stobart had sorted out some of the gremlins present in the Woodford premiere. I.A. writes that the ‘woodwind and brass (horns) were equal to the demands made on them’ but the ‘string playing made one want to hear this work again, with a virtuoso body like the English Chamber Orchestra.’

Writing about the same concert, Ernest Chapman (London Musical Events, 23 June 1968) suggested that the Chamber Symphony was ‘... expertly written with a slow movement notable for its sustained melodic impulse.  The outer movements, while always keeping the ball in play, could have done with more of this poetic element.’    

The looked-for definitive account probably came with a Radio Three broadcast made on 28 October 1983 by the Northern Sinfonia, conducted by Howard Williams. It was the work’s first, and possibly last, broadcast performance.  
Listening to this recording on YouTube,  reveals a Symphony that is approachable, satisfying and, in my opinion, an important addition to the symphonic repertoire of the 1960s. The ‘adagio’ is quite simply gorgeous.
As such, I feel that there should be a modern reading of this work made available, or at least a remastered issue of the 1983 broadcast.

Finally, Paul Conway (MusicWeb International 3 February 2003) has written that ‘…the Chamber Symphony of 1968…whose cool spikily expressionist style is articulated by an ensemble of modest proportions…is characterised by pungent rhythms and idiomatic solo woodwind writing.’ This pithily sums up the Symphony’s impact. Milner was never afraid to make use of expanded tonality, as in this present Chamber Symphony.  On the other hand, he was adept at intensifying this apparent limitation to his requirements, and produce work that is always fresh, vibrant and satisfying. He was never a ‘slave’ to the prevailing avant-garde.

With thanks to Paul Conway for his invaluable assistance in preparing this essay.  And also to MusicWeb International where it was first published. 

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Dame Ethel Smyth: The Boatswain’s Mate: A Comedy in One Act and Two Parts (1916)

I omitted to post this review on my 'blog' in 2016: so here it is now...
There is a rule of thumb that states British opera did not truly exist until the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in the days following VE Day. Palpably this is not true, but it is believed by many opera enthusiasts. There are the Savoy Operas, but these are usually regarded as being as less than ‘serious’.  In fact, even the briefest glance at the listings of British opera (operetta) over the years prior to Grimes, reveals a large number of works. Well known examples include RVWs Hugh the Drover, Delius’ A Village Romeo and Juliet and Edward German’s Merrie England. There are plenty of others. Two major genres are represented here: grand opera and light opera or operetta.
The Boatswain’s Mate falls into the category of ‘short opera’. And therein lies one of its problems. It needs a programme partner. Few opera goers would be prepared to spend a considerable sum on a performance lasting a mere one and half hours. It needs its Cox and Box

A few notes on the composer may be of interest to listeners. Ethel Smyth was born on 23 April 1858 in Sidcup, Kent. She was the daughter of a Major General in the Royal Artillery. Smyth studied abroad under the German musician Heinrich von Herzogenberg, and at the Leipzig Conservatory. Early successes included the symphonic Serenade in D major for orchestra and the Overture: Anthony and Cleopatra which were first heard at the Crystal Palace. In 1893 she presented her Mass in D at the Royal Albert Hall.  She was a prolific composer of operas with her most famous being The Wreckers, inspired by the seas and history of Cornwall. It was preceded by the comic opera Fantasio and Der Wald.  Other stage works were to follow The Boatswain’s Mate, including Fête Galante, Entente Cordiale. During a two-month term of imprisonment in Holloway she wrote an oratorio, The Prison. There were also a number of skilful chamber works.
Her political activities often overshadowed her music. She was active in the Suffragette movement and the Woman’s Social and Political Union. Her volumes of autobiography including Impressions that Remain, Streaks of Life and A Final Burning of Boats make entertaining and informative reading.
Smyth’s music is of great quality: it is characterised by powerful melodies and competent scoring. One feels that is she had been male, her star would have risen as high as Elgar, Parry and Stanford. In 1922 she was made a Dame of the British Empire. Ethel Smyth died in Woking on 8 May 1944.

The Boatswain’s Mate was written during 1913/14 whilst Smyth had taken a step back from the militant politics of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Apparently, she toyed with the idea of setting J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea. She put this to one side and chose to devise a libretto from the short story The Boatswain’s Mate by W.W. Jacobs printed in the Strand Magazine (August 1905). The music was composed whilst she was on a ‘vacation’ for six months in a Hotel in Helouan, Egypt.  The political struggle was not totally forgotten: her The March of the Women and the song ‘1910’ from Songs of Sunrise for unaccompanied choir, commemorating the violence of ‘Black Friday’ (18 November 1910) are woven into the overture.
The Boatswain’s Mate was premiered at the Shaftsbury Theatre on January 28 1916 and was performed by the Beecham Opera Company. It was conducted by the Smyth herself.

I do not intend to plot spoil. One or two brief pointers will be of significance. The first thing to surprise the listener is that the action is set in a pub. I guess before I read anything about this opera I imagined that it would reflect the high seas, or at least some seaport such as Plymouth or Portsmouth. I felt that it would follow in the wake, as it were, of The Wreckers. However, all the action is set in The Beehive, a remote country inn.
Secondly, there has been much argument as to whether this is a ‘feminist’ opera of not. It is possible to analyse it as such, but equally imaginable to consider its heroine as a ‘feisty’ woman, who manages to outwit a calculating suitor and (possibly) falls for his competitor in her affections. In other words, a straightforward battle of the sexes, where the woman wins.
Musically the work is written in two diverse parts, although ostensibly in one act. The first part has a selection of arias and interludes sung by the soloists. This is interspersed with spoken dialogue, in the same manner as Gilbert and Sullivan in their Savoy Operas. The style could also be defined as ballad-opera. The second ‘part’ is musical throughout, with all ‘dialogue’ sung in the manner of a music drama. I am not sure why she created this obvious disparity: I am not completely convinced that it adds to the end result. The music is always enjoyable and never ceases to hold the listener’s attention.
And finally, Ethel Smyth not only uses her famous march: she also weaves a number of folk tunes into the proceedings. This includes ‘Bushes and Briars’, ‘Lord Randall’ and ‘O Dear what can the matter be?’

The recording quality of the of the music is ideal. The clarity of the singing is never in doubt. It would be disingenuous to pick out any individual soloist. All of them give a sympathetic and convincing performance. The Lontano Ensemble provide an intimate, chamber quality to the proceedings.
The liner notes are comprehensive. The first section presents an essay by Christopher Wiley on ‘The Boatswain’s Mate in the context of Smyth’ life and works.’  Another major essay by the present conductor Odaline de la Martinez, examines ‘The Music of The Boatswain’s Mate.’  Finally, David Chandler considers the operetta’s ‘Source, Adaptation and Emphasis.’ The usual biographies of the cast and performers are given. Most important of all, the libretto is printed in full (including sung numbers and dialogue).  As a package this is exceptional. It is exactly how ‘revived’ operas should be presented.

Included in this 2 CD set are two historical treats. Firstly, there are ‘significant’ extracts of The Boatswain’s Mate recorded (unbelievably) on 2 October 1916. This century-old recording is surprisingly good. But then it should be. It was made by The Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. I am not too sure what the recording history of this work is, but reading the liner notes it would appear that a number of records were issued featuring the Overture followed by eight songs/arias/interludes from the operetta.
The final indulgence is the overture from Ethel Smyth’s other opera The Wreckers. This was recorded in 1930 with the composer again conducting The Symphony Orchestra. It has been released on Symposium 1202 in 2000. However, it is valuable to have it here as a pendant to the present opera. One cannot help noticing just how far recording technology progressed in the post First World War years. As a matter of interest, another version of this overture was recorded by Sir Alexander Gibson in 1968, along with works by German, Harty and MacCunn. (HMV ASD 2400)

This the first recording from Retrospect Opera. This is a registered charity whose mission is to record selected British operas of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. They combine expertise in performing, editing of music and scholarly research.  The aim is to allow listeners to hear and understand the ‘wealth of British operatic heritage.’ All the profits made from this CD release will be ploughed back into further projects. Retrospect Opera has an excellent website. Other operas being produced will include Edward Loder’s Raymond and Agnes and Solomon and Burnard’s Pickwick. I understand that plans are being made for a recording of Smyth’s Fête Galante.

The Boatswain’s Mate is an ideal candidate for concert performances. No complicated sets, scenery or props are needed. The cast is limited to about eight principals and only a chamber ensemble is required.

Let us hope that two things result from this outstanding new release from Retrospect Opera. Firstly, a wider appreciation of Dame Ethel Smyth’s music, with increased performances of the present opera and possibly the other five. And secondly, a greater demand for listeners and singers to explore the proud heritage of Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian (V) operas that have for so long lain under the cloud of negative comparison with Peter Grimes.

Track Listings:
Dame Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
The Boatswain’s Mate: A Comedy in One Act and Two Parts (1916) Complete Opera (Edition prepared by Dr Valerie Langfield
The Boatswain’s Mate (extracts from the 1916 recording) The Symphony Orchestra/Ethel Smyth
The Wreckers: Overture The Symphony Orchestra/Ethel Smyth (rec.1930)
Lontano Ensemble/Odaline de la Martinez.
Nadine Benjamin (Mrs Waters), Edward Lee (Harry Benn), Jeremy Huw Williams (Ned Travers), Simon Wilding (Policeman) Ted Schmitz (The Man) Rebecca Louise Dale (Mary Ann) and Chorus.
Rec. September 2015 and April 2016 St Mary's Church, Walthamstow, London, UK.
RETROSPECT OPERA RO001
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.