Friday, 18 August 2017

Arnold Bax: A Fine Chamber Music Concert in Edinburgh, December 1932.

I found this review of a concert of Arnold Bax’s music presented at Edinburgh University on Thursday 15 December 1932. It was printed in The Scotsman the following day.
It is a concert I should have liked to attend, as it features three of my favourite Bax chamber works. These were clearly chosen to reflect a wide range of Bax’s achievement, but, as the review states, all have a Celtic feel to them. It is surely rare enough to have a recital devoted to the music of just one (living) composer in any age. A subsequent post will examine a follow up article about Bax and his symphonies, also published in The Scotsman.

‘Musical art does not stand still, and if public opinion lags somewhat behind, it also advances, although, no doubt, at a slower rate. It is not so many years since there were many to be found of a conservative turn of mind, who denounced the playing of Debussy’ music as an insult to the public. Today, Debussy is accepted as a matter of course.
Between the advent of a composer of ‘advanced’ ideas or methods, and his more or less general acceptance by the public, however, there is much spade-work to be done, and it is for such useful work that an organisation of the type of the Contemporary Music Society exists.
This Society, which has been formed within the last few months, made its first public appearance last night, in the University Music class-room, with a programme devoted to the music of Mr Arnold Bax.
The composer of ‘The Garden of Fand’ [1] is scarcely to be regarded as a musician still waiting for that recognition which is his due. Except for the ‘Garden of Fand’ music, which was given at an orchestral concert a few years ago [2], Mr Bax 's compositions are as yet little known in Edinburgh, and last night's concert, in which Mr Bax himself took part, afforded a welcome opportunity of hearing some of the work of one of the most remarkable composers of today.

The programme began with the third Sonata for violin and piano, [3] played by Mr Edward Dennis replacing Miss Bessie Spence at short notice, and Mr Erik Chisholm [4]. Miss Mona Benson gave attractive renderings of a group of three songs, ‘Cradle Song’, ‘Rann of Exile’, and ‘Rann of Wandering,’ [5] with Mr Chisholm at the piano; Miss Margaret Ludwig and Mr Bax played the ‘Legend’ for viola and piano [6], and Miss Ruth Waddell and Mr Bax played the Sonata for violoncello and piano [7]. In view of the unfamiliarity of all the music, attention turned principally to its general characteristics. Throughout, there is a strong suggestion of Celtic folksong. Mr Bax has pronounced Irish sympathies, and there was little of last night's thematic material which had not much of the character of Irish folk-music. It would perhaps be not altogether fanciful, too, to trace a resemblance between Celtic design and the elaborate ornamentation of Mr Bax's music. The Sonata for violin and piano was well played, but with rather a hard tone from both violin and piano, and suffered proportionately in its effect. It contains some beautiful writing, however, particularly in the first movement. The ‘Legend’ proved a charming work. Miss Ludwig has been very successful in seizing the rather elusive beauty of the tone of the viola, which, if well played, has a very poetic quality; while Mr Bax proved an admirable pianist. The Sonata for violoncello and piano also contained much that was attractive. It was an unusual and very interesting concert.’
The Scotsman - Friday 16 December 1932

Notes:
[1] The symphonic poem The Garden of Fand was composed in 1916. It received its first performance in Chicago on 29 October 1920, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock. The British premiere was at the Kingsway Hall, London on 11 December 1920 with Adrian Boult conducting the British Symphony Orchestra.
[2] The Edinburgh performance of Bax’s The Garden of Fand was on the 20th December 1926 at the Usher Hall. The Scottish Orchestra was conducted by Václav Talich.
[3] The Sonata No.3 for violin and piano was composed in 1927. It was first performed by its dedicatee the Hungarian Emil Telmányi (1892-1988), violin and Arnold Bax, piano, at the Arts Theatre Club on 4 February 1929.
[4] Erik Chisholm was born in the Cathcart suburb of Glasgow on 4 January 1904. Apparently, he was a kind of ‘wunderkind’ who was composing music before he could read and was also writing poems and ‘novels’ whilst still in junior school. He studied with Herbert Walton, the erstwhile organist at Glasgow Cathedral and Lev Pouishnoff and then at the Scottish Academy of Music between 1918 and 1920. After this, he toured the United States and Canada before returning to Edinburgh and studying under the great Sir Donald Tovey. He received his Doctorate of Music from Edinburgh in 1934. During this time, he was also the conductor of the Glasgow Grand Opera Society which gave under his direction several first British performances, including Mozart’s Idomeneo, Berlioz’s The Trojans (still remembered by the older generation when I was a young man in the early 1970s in Glasgow), Dvořák's Jakobin and William Beattie Moonies’ Weird of Colbar. Chisholm did seem to have a penchant for setting up groups and societies – but these were all means to an end for his enthusiasm for new music. He founded the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music in 1929; this was followed by the Barony Opera Society in 1936. During the Second World War, he was the conductor of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and was a director of ENSA in South East Asia. After the war Chisholm was appointed as Director of the South African College of Music at Cape Town. Once again, he was instrumental in promoting both new music and opera and set up the University Opera Company and the University Opera School. Erik Chisholm died in Cape Town on 8 June 1965, aged only 60 years.
[5] Three Irish Songs, 1922: ‘Cradle Song’, ‘Rann of Exile’ and ‘Rann of Wandering’ to texts by Irish poet Padraic Colum (1881-1972). The word ‘Rann’ means ‘quatrain’, ‘stanza’ or ‘verse’. The earliest traced performance was given by Eleanor Charter (soprano) and Arnold Bax (piano) at the Liberty Buildings, School Lane, Kingston upon Thames on 5 November 1926.
[6] The Legend for viola and piano was dedicated to the American musical patron and socialite Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge. It was completed during July 1929. The Legend was first performed at the Aeolian Hall, London on 7 December 1929 by Lionel Tertis (viola) and Arnold Bax (piano).
[7] Arnold Bax’s Sonata for cello and piano was completed on 7 November 1923. It was dedicated to the cellist Beatrice Harrison (1892-1965), who along with pianist Harriet Cohen, gave the first performance at London’s Wigmore Hall on 26 February 1924. 
With thanks to Graham Parlett, for information derived from his magisterial A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Vale: Contemporary music for flute and soloists on Metier

I began with Brice Pauset’s (France) take on the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. Every schoolchild knows (or ought to know) how Eurydice was trapped in the Underworld, which, as Pauset’s note points out, is ‘a place without colour or dimension’, where she was ‘existing as a shadow of her former self.’ Orpheus goes to the rescue, but his impatience, and his love, cause him to look back before they have left the confines of Hades. The magic is destroyed: Eurydice returns to the eternal silence. It has been the subject of many art works including Gluck’s divine opera and Stravinsky’s Orpheus (1948). Brice Pauset has (to my ear) balanced the sadness, loss and desolation with the potential for salvation and love. There is warmth here, but ultimately it is overcome by tragedy and death. The sound-world of this piece for solo flute, is approachable and often quite moving. The last notes leave the listener in deep sadness and longing for a reprieve for Eurydice, which we know can never come.

I moved on to American composer Evan Johnson’s Émoi for solo bass flute. This work was commissioned by BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated) Foundation and the Concert Artists Guild and was specifically composed for the flautist Claire Chase. The word ‘émoi’ means ‘confusion, agitation caused by fear’. The liner notes, written by the composer, do not help understand the work (at least for the general listener). I found the work interesting insofar as the effects produced on the instrument are startling. But generally, it is not a work that I warm to: at just over 11 minutes, it seems to last forever.

Swedish composer Esaias Järnegard’s (b.1983) Psalm (voice and contrabass flute) (2011) is his first attempt at fusing the poetry of Paul Celan with words written by the Swedish poet Lars Norén. He doesn’t tell why. Alas, Métier have not provided the text of this work, so the listener is not able to get a grip on the progress or sense of the work. Once again, the programme note provided is abstruse in its explanation. The work is clearly ‘avant-garde’ in every sense – the flute and the voice are deconstructed to extinction. There are moments of beauty in this score, but also of unintelligible sounds. One thing is clear, Järnegard has created a unique sound world: one does wonder where he will go next with his Paul Celan project.

I have never heard of the 13th century Ghent born composer Alexander Agricola (c.1456-1506) who lived and worked in France, Belgium and Italy. He is regarded as an important composer of secular songs. Listen to an example of his music on YouTube. Fabrice Fitch (1967) (France) writes that his Agricola IX ‘draws inspiration’ from these Chansons. There is another association: the artist David Smith (1906-1965) who created an ‘eponymous’ cycle of sculptures.
The present work is scored for flute and string trio. The trio acts as a ‘resonator’ or ‘ground’ for the flautist rather than providing ‘commentary’ or ‘development.’ Use is also made by the composer of the ‘opening phrases of the rondeau by Johannes Ockeghem, ‘Je n’ay dueil que je ne suis morte.’ The progress of the flute music is characterised by deconstructing these phrases and introducing transpositions and utilising quarter tones.  It is an enjoyable work, which does not need the allusions to Smith’s sculptures (Google them) to make it succeed.

I was impressed by Welsh-born Richard Barrett’s ‘Vale’ for solo flute. It is a long work that certainly matches the beauty of Debussy’s ‘Syrinx’ or Messiaen’s ‘Le Merle Noir.’ The concept of the work is ingenious: a string of leaves floating down the river. It is a clever conceit, as the leaves will move sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly and occasionally will become obstructed. The flute ‘embodies several kinds of motion’, and consists of 59 ‘movements’ of vastly different durations: the opening lasts for two minutes whereas some are over before they begin. Barnett exploits the capabilities of the flute with boundless imagination.

John Croft’s Deux méditations d'une furie (soprano & bass flute) was composed between 2011 and 2013. The two movements are subtitled ‘par cette vie infirme et vacillante’ and ‘O phosphorescence.’ The text (provided) is extracted from Jean Tardieu’s theatre piece Malédictions d’une furie (A Fury’s Curses).  The first piece (By this ailing and vacillating life) is a ‘contemplation and reflection on impermanence, on the fleetingness of life.’ The music is constantly trying to establish itself, but seems to fail. Flute and soprano ‘intertwine’ but soon pass away into nothingness. It is constant death and decay – a ‘suddenly extinguished flame.’ Yet somehow the music is not depressing: it has a strange, haunting beauty. The second piece, manages to provide some form of hope and ‘redemption.’ The listener is encouraged to praise the ‘phosphorescence colour of sidereal night,’ where ‘sidereal’ refers to distant stars and constellations rather than the solar system. It is a memorable piece that is challenging but certainly not unapproachable.

The performances appear to me to be brilliant. The liner notes are helpful (except for the lack of texts for the Psalm). The notes (sometimes a wee bit over-intellectual) are provided by each composer with an additional overview written by John Hall. Brief notes about each composer and the musicians are included.
This is an interesting exploration of modern music for flute, voice and other instruments. It is certainly avant-garde: it is never off-putting. I enjoyed and appreciated most of the pieces here, even if it is not exactly my usual musical fare.

Track Listing:
Evan JOHNSON (b.1980) Émoi (solo bass flute) (2010)
Esaias JÄRNEGARD (b.1983) Psalm (voice and contrabass flute) (2011)
Fabrice FITCH (1967) Agricola IX (solo flute and string trio) (2013)
Richard BARRETT (b.1959) Vale (solo flute) (2006-12)
John CROFT (b.1971) Deux méditations d'une furie (soprano & bass flute) (2011-13) Brice PAUSET (b.1965) Eurydice (solo flute) (1998)
Richard Craig (flute); Cora Schmeiser (soprano); Distractfold Ensemble: Linda Jankowska (violin); Emma Richards (viola); Alice Purton (cello)
Rec. 10 November 2011 Elentstudien Brewhouse, Göteborg, Sweden (Järnegard); 1-9 September 2014 (Johnson, Barrett, Pauset); 22 November (Croft); 8-9 July 2014 (Fitch) Middleholms, Langholm, Scotland.
MÉTIER msv 28540 [60:51]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.


Friday, 11 August 2017

Philip Lane: Lyric Dances (2007)

I listened the other day to Philip Lane’s delightful Lyric Dances. These were composed in 2007 for the following year’s English Music Festival (EMF). The liner notes explain that they are orchestral versions of several songs composed for ‘upper voices.’ These [probably] included Some Rhymes of Lewis Carrol (2003) and Four Shakespeare Lyrics (1998). I do wish that Lane had been a little more forthcoming in providing a list of songs transcribed. However, it would be possible to work them out from the respective vocal scores. I have not done this.
The Dances were arranged in ‘homage’ to Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, whose ‘Little Suite’ featured orchestral arrangements of children’s songs.

The Lyric Dances were first performed on Tuesday, 27 May 2008 at Dorchester [on Thames] Abbey, in Oxfordshire during the final EMF concert. Other works included Matthew Curtis’s Festival Overture, Paul Carr’s Concerto for oboe and string orchestra and Cecilia McDowall’s ‘The Skies in their Magnificence’ which was a setting of Thomas Traherne for double choir. After the interval, the audience heard Ronald Corp’s ‘Jubilate’, the present work by Lane and David Owen Norris’s Piano Concerto in C. The Southern Sinfonia was conducted by Corp.

It is important to realise that these dances are related to each other in mood and tone. None of them are practical as ‘standalone’ pieces. The composer has suggested that that they be offered as a unit.  The Lyric Dances explore several moods – from inquisitive, sombre, joyful, dramatic, to frivolous.
The first dance is a delightfully wayward tempo di valse. It is the only ‘dance’ that is named as such. In the oh-too-brief programme note written for the work’s premiere, Lane writes that the second dance began life as a setting of Shakespeare’s ‘Come Away Death.’ It is a thoughtful piece that reflects the lost love of the jester Feste from Twelfth Night.  The third dance is a pastoral ‘andante’, that pitches French horn and woodwind into creating a seductive landscape.
There is a pensive beauty about the ‘adagio sostenuto’. Lane makes use of a gorgeous tune on strings and then woodwind. Magical use is made of the ‘Mark tree’ percussion instrument which provides delicate chime-like sounds, especially as rising and falling glissandi. The final dance, ‘allegro moderato’ is rhythmic in its outer section, with a few quieter moments in the ‘trio’ section.

Philp Lane’s Lyric Dances were released on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7283 in 2009. It was reviewed on MusicWeb International by Gary Higginson (12 May 2012) who commented that ‘Philip Lane…likes dances. He’s probably good fun at a party! His Cotswold Dances are well known (ASV CD WHL 2126). His Lyric Dances fall into five sections; book-ended by faster ones. The first is the only dance named - a Waltz. The fourth is an absolutely gorgeous Adagio sostenuto…’
Paul A. Snook in Fanfare (September/October 2012) noted the ‘…gently accomplished blend of the tuneful and terpsichorean in [Lane’s] Lyric Dances Strangely I could find no review of this CD in The Gramophone magazine. 

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The Silver Hound and other songs by Betty Roe

This is the first CD of music by Betty Roe that I have heard. In fact, I think that it might be the first retrospective of her music to be released. Betty Roe was born in North Kensington London in 1930. From her early years, she has been involved with music. Her musical teachers included York Bowen and Lennox Berkeley. In 1970 Betty Roe and her husband, the late John Bishop, founded Thames Publishing which subsequently produced many important books and scores specialising in British Music.
Roe is typically regarded for her vocal music and songs: there are more than 300 of them, covering a variety of genres. There are also several operas, musicals, choral works and a fair selection of instrumental pieces. She has written that she doesn’t ‘enjoy big music’ continuing ‘I find large scale orchestral works overwhelming and frightening to my ears, so it is unlikely that I will ever compose a symphony.’ This does seem a little bit of an exaggeration: an opera is hardly a miniature, and there is a Trumpet Concerto in her catalogue. But I take her point. She is clearly most comfortable writing songs.
The present CD includes works written during the past 30 years. One issue I have with this CD is that no dates are given for each work. I am not sure how Roe’s musical style has developed over the years: my guess is that the combination of mid-20th century English song, light music and Flanders and Swann have served her well throughout her career.
The songs on this CD are wide-ranging and often involve various combinations of voices and instrumentalists. They include parts for recorder (Celtic Songs), French horn (Silver Hound) and violin (Garden Songs). This usually reflects the organisations or individuals who have commissioned the work.
I will comment on several (for me) highlights.
A good place to start are the delightfully humorous ‘Three Songs for Graham’. They were composed specifically for baritone Graham Trew and set some poems by Marian Lines, a long-time literary collaborator with Betty Roe. There is much wistful humour in these charming songs. It includes the only known setting of the word ‘Ceefax’ in the corpus of ‘English Lieder!’ As suggested above, these songs nod to Flanders and Swann.
The liner notes state that Malcolm Arnold wrote ‘Lines Written in Kensington Gardens.’ I think it was probably the poet Matthew Arnold... This is the first of the pastoral ‘Two Garden Poems.’ The second song, which is anonymous, majors on a tiny seed that grows to maturity. It criticises all the other flowers in the garden, only to discover that it itself is a weed!
The major event on this CD is the setting of Ursula Vaughan Williams’ poem based on the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech spoken by Jaques in As You Like it (Act II, Scene VII).  The concept is that the singer sends his ‘hound back in time to fetch events from his life.’ A Prologue is followed by a Lullaby, The Schoolboy, The Soldier, The Lover, The Statesman, The Old Man and a final Epitaph. It is a complex, deeply thought out piece that deserves to be as popular as Benjamin Britten’s extended song cycles. The interaction of the horn, piano and the tenor soloist is exemplary. This is the most challenging and satisfying work presented on this disc.
The ‘show-time’ ‘Diva’s Lament’ with nods to Cabaret, explores the ‘lack of age-appropriate roles for mature soprano’s. It is an ironic number, that may be a shade politically incorrect these days. Although I get the drift!
I enjoyed the Thomas Hardy ‘Conversations’. These songs, which are written for soprano and baritone duet, explore typically Hardy-esque themes. The first considers a wife who hoped she could reform her husband, the second is a ‘folky’ tune where a jolly farmer contemplates his funeral arrangements, and the final song reflects an ‘old maid’ who has given up her prospects to stay at home to look after her domineering father. All the songs are well-contrived and display a characteristically bitter-sweet mood.
An interesting song is ‘Autumn’s Legacy’ which is a setting of a poem by the great musicologist and enthusiastic promulgator of British music, Lewis Foreman. At least that is the ‘Foreman’ who I assume wrote the text! The song was written to celebrate Foreman’s 70th birthday and considers ‘the cycle of the seasons and wonders how many more he will see.’ Plenty, I hope!
Finally, The Three Celtic Songs with texts by Padraic Colum, James Hogg and W.B. Yeats feature a recorder and piano accompaniment. The first song, ‘Lullaby’ is a croon reflecting the visit of the shepherd to the baby Jesus, the second, ‘A Boy’s Song’ reminds the listener of the once ubiquitous ‘cheery whistle’ of the message boy and the final jig in ‘The Fiddler of Dooney’. Roe has caught the ‘Celtic’ mood of these poems without falling into the trap of writing pastiche.
Other songs include the evocative ‘I know a Bank’ from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Swinburne’s ‘In a Garden’, the Book of Common Prayer version of the ‘Magnificat’, Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Fair Singer’ and Leo Mark’s ‘The Life that I have.’  
The CD is well-produced with splendid sound quality and convincing performances from all the artists. The liner notes give a brief overview of Betty Roe’s songs with additional comments about each work. As noted above, no dates are given. There are detailed biographies of the performers. The texts of all the songs are included.

Track Listing:
The Silver Hound and other songs by Betty Roe
Betty ROE (b.1930)
I know a bank; In a Garden; Two Garden Songs: In this lone, open glade, The Critic;
Magnificat; The Silver Hound; The Fair Singer; Three Songs for Graham: The Dream House,  The Promising Gardener, Scooting; Diva’s Lament;Three Hardy Conversations: A Wife Waits, Father Dunman’s Funeral, The Orphaned Old Maid; The Life that I have; Autumn’s Legacy; Three Celtic Songs: A Cradle Song, A Boy’s Song, The Fiddler of Dooney.
Sarah Leonard (soprano); Anne Marie Sheridan (soprano); Robin Tritschler (tenor); Stephen Varcoe (baritone); Emma Murphy (recorder); Madeleine Mitchell (violin); Daniel Beer (French horn); Nigel Foster (piano)
MÉTIER MSV28566 

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Charles Villiers Stanford & C.S. Lang: A Short Anecdote

I found this anecdote in Harry Plunket Greene’s [1] witty biography (portrait) of Charles Villiers Stanford. It is largely self-explanatory.

Plunket Greene wrote: [Stanford’s] criticisms were expressed in various ways, mostly unpremeditated, and many of them are delightedly quoted by the recipients to this day. He was devoted to C. S. Lang, [2] now Director of Music at Christ's Hospital. It was Stanford's custom when his work was over at the R.C.M. to take a taxi to the Savile Club [3] in Piccadilly, but one day he received orders from his doctor to walk the distance for the sake of exercise. Lang, having heard of this, used to wait for him on the steps to see that he obeyed instructions. He [Lang] told me that one morning he turned up at his lesson with a superb (as he thought) six-part Motet, a setting of Dominus Illuminatio Mea [4]. Stanford looked at it for a minute or two, threw it on top of the piano and started in on the Dorian mode or some other remote subject; he never mentioned the masterpiece. In the afternoon, they walked together to the Savile. There is an undertaker's shop in Knightsbridge and as they passed the door Stanford gave him a shove and said:
'Take it in there, me boy.'
That was the only reference he ever made to it.

[1] Harry Plunket Greene (1865-1936) was a hugely popular Irish baritone and fly-fishing enthusiast. He was the baritone soloist in the premiere of Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. Greene was also the son-in-law of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. In 1935, he published what was for many years the only biographical study of Charles Villiers Stanford.
[2] Craig Sellar Lang (C.S.) (1891-1971) combined composition with an academic career. He was Director of Music at Christ’s Hospital School in Sussex between 1929 and 1945. His best-known composition is Tuba Tune in D major, op.15 which is often heard in cathedrals, parish churches and on CD.
[3] The Savile Club is a traditional London gentlemen's club founded in 1868. Until 1927, it was located at 107 Piccadilly, though it has subsequently moved to 69 Brook Street. Many eminent composers and musicians were members including Edward Elgar, Hubert Parry and Adrian Boult. 
[4] Dominus Illuminatio Mea trans. The Lord is my Light. 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Graham Whettham: Complete works for cello

This CD is well-placed to become one of my discs of the year.
The primary reason for this assessment is the often-heartbreakingly beautiful and disturbingly energetic Concerto Drammatico for cello and orchestra which is one of the finest British cello concertos that I have heard since first discovering those by Finzi, Leighton and Walton. The other cello music presented on this disc is hardly less impressive.

Whettam in a nutshell. Graham Whettam was born in Swindon 7 September 1927. He was largely self-taught as a composer. His first public performance was in 1950. In 1953 Whettam’s Oboe Concerto was premiered at the Proms.  He was Chairman of the Composer’s Guild in 1971 and from 1983-6. Whettam’s catalogue is extensive, with examples of all the major genres with the five (completed) symphonies forming the core of his achievement. Many of his works were premiered on the continent. His ‘post-romantic’ music is a perfect balance between grittiness and lyricism and is always crafted meticulously.  
Graham Whettam died on 17 August 2007 at the village of Woolaston, Gloucestershire.

The CD insert includes a long discussion of the Concerto Drammatico for cello and orchestra by the composer himself. The work has a complex history, deriving from an earlier (1960s) Cello Concerto which remained unfinished. Inspired by Martin Rummel’s recording of his Solo Cello Sonata, Whettam reworked the score in 1999. In September 2000, it was duly premiered in Urbana, Illinois with Rummel and the Sinfonia de Camera conducted by Ian Hobson. It is this performance which is presented on this CD.
The Concerto is well-written for soloist and orchestra. One reviewer of the premiere suggested that Whettam was ‘an imaginative user of exotic sonorities.’ The overall style is difficult to define. Markers would include Shostakovich, Bartok and Stravinsky: English influences embrace Walton and even Vaughan Williams.
The Concerto is written in three movements: ‘Scena’, ‘Danza vigorosa’ and ‘Scena ultima’. The composer’s technique includes atonal harmonies and the probable use of a series. The first movement is deliberately convoluted in its progress, opening with a long melancholic exposition of the movement’s main theme played by solo cello, before being joined by the orchestra with mounting tension. The middle section of this first movement, ‘con fuoco’ which is, as the work’s title suggests, dramatic, if not overtly histrionic. There are some gorgeous romantic moments. After a long cadenza, the close of this Scena is elegiac in mood which presents a huge contrast with the following dynamic ‘Danza vigorosa.’ This second movement is lively, aggressive in mood, with the composer almost allowing it to get out of hand. This is contrasted with a thoughtful middle section. The dance music is reprised and is followed by an over-blown, film-music-like, restatement of the central section. This leads into the final movement. Once again this ‘Scena ultima’ provides great contrast, based on a chorale-like ‘adagio.’ After a heart-breakingly slow exposition of the theme, the music rises to a huge climax which subsides after impetuous ‘side drum rhythms…and harrowing brass chords of growing intensity.’ The music gradually dies away, with further reminiscences of the chorale melody.
The sheer craftsmanship of Whettam’s musical language is audible in every bar of this concerto.

I am not usually a fan of solo cello music, unless it is Bach or Britten. Recently I have added the English composer Liz Johnson’s Cello Suite (MÉTIER MSV 77206) to those two exceptions. In this review, I find that I now must include Whettam’s Romanzas No.1 and 2 and the Solo Cello Sonata.
Turning to the two Romanzas. The first (1993) was originally written for violin.  It was then reworked for viola and finally for cello.  The second (2000) was composed with Martin Rummel in mind.  Once again, maximum exposure was created by simultaneous versions for violin and viola. I understand that the composer wished both Romanzas to be played successively at a recital.
I was struck in both cases by music that is ideally formed for the cello. They present ‘absolute’ music that demands concentration to reveal their charm and beauty. The first Romanza was dedicated to Jillian White and the second to Lady Hilary Groves.

The Solo Cello Sonata is a masterpiece.  It was premiered at a recital at the Austrian Cultural Institute in London during April 1994. According to the liner notes, it was recorded on a minor German CD label in 2011.  I enjoyed the sincerity and musical integrity of this Sonata, which is written in three short movements. The biggest technical challenge arrives in the middle movement, which is a three-part fugue. The two outer movements are discursive by design and major on a ‘lamenting’ theme commemorating the composer’s parents.

The Ballade Hebraique for cello and orchestra began life as a Ballade for violin and piano which received several performances in the North of England during November 1981. Listeners to this work picked up on the ‘Jewish sound of the string writing.’ A commentator in Canada wrote that the work had ‘the modal ambience of a heart rending Hebraic lament.’ Interestingly, it had been composed for a Jewish friend, Yossi Zivoni. In the late 1980s Whettam made a new version of this work for violin and orchestra, now the Ballade Hebraique. It was dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin and Yossi Zivoni. There was a project to record the work with Menuhin as soloist, but this did not come to fruition. In 1999, Whettam revised the work for cello and orchestra and dedicated it to the present soloist Martin Rummel.
The Ballade is written in ‘sandwich’ form -ABCBA - the first and last parts are meditative in mood, the central section is a vibrant moto-perpetuo and the ‘B’ sections are romantic and flowing in temper. This a beautiful, thoughtful and moving work, that certainly displays many of the qualities of a Hebrew lament.

The present soloist, Martin Rummel, was a close friend of the composer.  He was born in Linz, Austria in 1974. He is currently located in Auckland, New Zealand. Rummel combines playing with teaching and working in the music industry as an artistic director.

The liner notes (in English and German) are excellent and provide a detailed study of each work. They include programme notes by the composer. There is also a good biography of Graham Whettam. There are several attractive photographs of Whettam and Rummel taken shortly before the composer’s death in 2007. Alas, white print on grey background does not make for easy reading of the cover details.

I cannot rate this CD too highly. Martin Rummel’s playing is superb. He is a splendid advocate of Graham Whettam’s music. The Sinfonia de Camera conducted by Ian Hobson (concerto) and the Woolaston Festival Orchestra directed by the composer (Ballade Hebraique) give satisfying accounts of both concerted works.

I do not know if this record company is planning more releases of music by Whettam. Certainly, looking at the record catalogue there is a dearth of CDs dedicated to his music. The Cello Concerto was previously released on Redcliffe Recordings (RR017) in 2002 along with the Sinfonia contra timore, and a retrospective of the composer’s piano music played by Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow, is available on Divine Art 25038. I look forward to a cycle of Graham Whettam’s five symphonic works, some of his many concertante pieces and at least a selection of his chamber music. 

Track Listing:
Graham WHETTAM (1927-2007)
Concerto Drammatico for cello and orchestra WW 73 (1999)
Romanza No.1 for cello solo WW 63/3 (1993)
Romanza No.2 for cello solo WW 75/1 (2000)]
Solo Cello Sonata WW 60 (1990/96)
Ballade Hebraique for cello and orchestra WW 47/3 (1981/1999)
Martin Rummel (cello) Sinfonia de Camera/Ian Hobson (Concerto); Woolaston Festival Orchestra/Graham Whettam (Ballade)
PALADINO MUSIC pmr0041 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Discovering Richard Rodney Bennett’s Calendar for chamber ensemble (1960) Part II

As noted in the previous post, Richard Rodney Bennett’s Calendar for chamber orchestra was released on Four British Composers, ALP 2093/ASD640, during 1965. The performers on this album included members of the Melos Ensemble conducted by John Carewe. Artists featuring in the other works on the album were Geoffrey Shaw (baritone), Pauline Stevens (contralto), Rosemary Philips (contralto) and Mary Thomas (soprano).  The John Alldis Choir was conducted by Alldis.

Edmund Tracey writing in the Manchester Guardian (17 October 1965) believed that all the works on this LP reflected ‘…four of the most recent British composers to have made an individual stir on the musical scene and this record will give some idea of their capacities.’

The Musical Times (September 1965) reviewer, fellow composer David Blake, wished ‘…that Bennett's Calendar gave me as much pleasure…’ as Malcolm Williamson’s Symphony for Voices. The greatest compliment that he could pay was ‘…that it provides effective contrast.’ He hoped that it was simply a ‘block’ on his (Blake’s) part.

A detailed appraisal of the album was provided by Frank Granville Barker in Music and Musicians (October 1965).  Unfortunately, he said comparatively little about Calendar: ‘Bennett is the sophisticate of the quartet, fluently skilled in several styles that are kept quite separate from one another according to their different purposes.’ He reflects that the present work ‘makes dramatic use of melody and harmony in [a] changing instrumental perspective.’ From a technical point of view Barker thinks that Calendar was recorded ‘in sharper focus’ than the other works on the LP.’

Anthony Payne (Tempo, Spring 1966) was impressed by the ‘…the sheer craftsmanship of Bennett's Calendar for chamber ensemble is a joy to follow.’ Giving an overall rating of the album he observes that ‘the performances by members of the Melos Ensemble under John Carewe…are impeccable, and the recording clear.’ Payne, so it should be noted, had produced the introductory notes for the album.

The most comprehensive analysis was given in The Gramophone (September 1965). J.N. (Jeremy Noble) wrote:
‘[When I turned] …to Richard Rodney Bennett's Calendar… one cannot help being struck by his far more fluent command of his medium.  Where Davies often seems to be composing against his instruments, or at least in spite of them, Bennett's almost seem to do his composing for him, so natural is the result. For him, too, continuity seems to pose no problems; the two outer movements of Calendar are quite complex in shape, yet I found no difficulty in following the general outlines of the argument without a score. The danger with so fluent an imagination and so accomplished a command of the sheer craft of composing is obviously facility, and I don't think that Bennett has always avoided it. In this he is very similar to Britten, who has also been ready on occasion (especially in instrumental works) to let ingenuity do the work of imagination. But the mere fact that the comparison can be made is some indication of Bennett's position among the younger generation of English composers.'

A decade later, J.H. reviewed the re-issue (ARGO ZRG 758) of this disc (The Gramophone, May 1975). He was generally pleased that the four works on this album had appeared again. He insisted that they were originally ‘well-chosen to illustrate the musical characteristics of these four composers.’  He felt that ‘only Richard Rodney Bennett…fares less well than the others: Calendar (for chamber ensemble) is attractive and well-made, but just a little faceless compared with most of his vocal music.’ Not a fair assessment, when one examines the wide range of Rodney Bennett’s music which includes many splendid and musically diverse genres: orchestral, chamber, stage, instrumental and vocal music.

A backward glance was given by Elliot Schwartz to Calendar in his review (The Musical Quarterly October 1977) of this re-issue:
Calendar is, one would guess, not a major work. It is more likely to be regarded, even by its highly prolific and eclectic composer, as a casual, incidental piece of occasional music. It is successful, in part, precisely because it is so unpretentious: a charming, atonal ‘divertimento’ - or, given the ease and stylishness of it all, and the fact that Bennett had just recently studied in Paris with Boulez, a ‘divertissement.’ For a composer aged twenty-four (in 1960), it is a particularly impressive feat.’

Finally, Paul Griffith writing in the Musical Times (September 1975) suggested that Richard Rodney Bennett’s Calendar is exactly ‘the sort of music that George Gershwin might have written if he had come into contact with [Anton] Webern.’  It is an extremely apposite and perceptive summary of this work.

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


Thursday, 27 July 2017

Discovering Richard Rodney Bennett’s Calendar for chamber ensemble (1960) Part I

A few weeks ago, I discovered Richard Rodney Bennett’s (1936-2012) Calendar for chamber ensemble. It was one of four works on an album of music entitled Four British Composers issued in 1965. Other music on this LP included Alexander Goehr’s Two Choruses, op.14 (1962), Malcolm Williamson’s Symphony for voices (1962) and Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘Leopardi’ Fragments for soprano, contralto and chamber orchestra (1962).   None of the works recorded on this album have become part of the mainstream repertoire: most will be known only to aficionados. This LP was one of a number sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation and issued by EMI. 

Calendar for chamber ensemble was written by Richard Rodney Bennett in the autumn of 1960, whilst he was residing in both London and Warsaw. It remains a relatively unknown piece by the composer.
The work was written specifically for the BBC Thursday Invitation Concerts series and was dedicated to the conductor John Carewe (b.1933). The first performance was given on 24 November 1960 and broadcast on the Third Programme. The performers were drawn from members of the Melos Ensemble, the Goldsborough Ensemble and the English Chamber Orchestra.  Amongst the soloists were Gervase de Payer (clarinet), Richard Adney (flute) and Lamar Crowson (piano). The other work heard at this concert was Hans Werner Henze’s The Emperor’s Nightingale.
Music composed by Bennett at this time included the cantata ‘The Approaches of Sleep’ (1960) to a text by Sir Thomas Browne for SATB soloists and ensemble, Journal for orchestra (1960) and the one act opera The Lodge (1960-1).

Richard Rodney Bennett wrote the programme note for this work which was published in the LP insert for the 1965 recording. He writes that the word ‘Calendar’ ‘is defined in [the then current] Webster’s Dictionary as ‘an orderly arrangement of divisions of time.’ The work is presented in three movements: ‘allegro’, ‘lento espressivo’ and ‘molto animato’. It is in effect a ‘chamber sonata’ although not necessarily in the ‘technical’ sense. In fact, Bennett points out that although each movement presents elements of exposition, development and reprise, this work cannot be explained in terms of ‘‘classical’ procedure.’
Bennett further explains:
1st movement
‘After the exposition and development of the main material there is a lively scherzando section (molto animato) followed by a more sustained coda built upon the material of the opening.’
2nd movement
‘This is a slow rhapsodic movement constructed in a loose A-B-A [ternary] form. Brief solos for violin, flute and cello emerge from a closely-knit texture, which incidentally, omits the piano and percussion is used in the outer movements.’
3rd movement
‘The construction of the last movement is similar to that of the first. After the main exposition, in A-B-A form, which leads to a climax, there is an extremely brilliant scherzando (vivacissimo, quasi cadenza) which gradually gives way to a slow coda in which the timpani are used for the first time.’

Calendar is scored for flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, piano, violin, viola and cello.  The choice of instruments was largely dictated by the line-up of John Carewe’s New Music Ensemble. The work was subsequently published by Mills Music in 1970. It lasts for about 12 minutes.

An unsigned notice in The Times (20 November 1960) pointed out that Richard Rodney Bennett is ‘a most versatile composer, possessing an amazing technical fluency.’ The present work ‘explores a wide range of emotions with an extraordinary expressive power.’ The reviewer felt that ‘the serial structure is easily comprehensible and is never use for mere effect.’ One wonders to what extent the serial building blocks of this work are discernible without the score or at least a copy of the original ‘tone-row.’  The review concludes by noting that the work displays ‘…a fine lyrical imagination that makes this work a moving and satisfying experience.’ Even a superficial hearing of Calendar will allow the listener to agree with this last sentence.

Conversely, the critic (Donald Mitchell) in the Daily Telegraph (25 November 1960) considered that this was a ‘slight, unpretentious work, predominantly lyrical in atmosphere’ that is ‘fastidiously scored but [avoiding] the fragmentation which is currently so fashionable.’  He concludes his comments by suggesting that Bennett’s music is ‘markedly unfashionable insofar as it offers ample thematic interest and no little harmonic density’ and adds rather patronisingly that ‘if the composer’s personality were as self-evident as his fluency, his ‘Calendar’ would be a good deal more than a notable example of attractive craftsmanship.’

The BBC house magazine, The Listener (1 December 1960) gave a detailed commentary of the BBC Thursday Invitation Concert, which tended to (unfairly) lump the Bennett and the Henze together as one entity. Under the headline ‘Contemporary Experiments’ the musicologist Rollo H. Myers wrote that ‘there was nothing one could object to in either piece apart from their similarity to so much of the music now being written in the idiom made fashionable by Pierre Boulez since [his] Le Marteau sans Maítre.’ This important and compelling work was composed by Boulez in 1955 and was a setting of poetry by René Char. It was regarded by many composers (Harrison Birtwistle, George Benjamin and Igor Stravinsky) as being ‘seminal.’ Actual comparison of Boulez’s work with Bennett’s Calendar is not necessarily helpful. Despite both being ‘lyrical’, Bennett is much more conventional in what he achieves with his material.
Myers was unconvinced about the overall impact and felt that when ‘the sounds have died away there is not very much for the mind to retain.’ He then makes a very interesting comparison which could apply to much music written at this period: ‘[He] is always reminded of the old-fashioned kaleidoscope in which, as you turn the lens, pieces of coloured glass fall into everchanging patterns that delight the eye [ear?] …’ Myers then spoilt this splendid metaphor by implying that, like the kaleidoscope, Bennett’s (and Henze’s) musical result is ‘inconsequential.’ They are only ‘quite skilfully contrived and pleasantly mild and unaggressive.’

Arthur Jacobs, reviewing the radio broadcast premiere for the Musical Times (January 1961) suggested ‘in a ten-minute span (three movements performed without a break) it displays true invention, [is] individual and consciously modern without being freakish, and confirms the rising status of this young composer.’

Finally, Anthony Meredith (Richard Rodney Bennett: The Complete Musician, Omnibus Press, 2010) wrote that Calendar ‘…treated the various solo instruments of the chamber ensemble like so many threads in a tantalising puzzle there for the unravelling – the solo violin…being richly rewarding throughout.’

On a first hearing of Calendar, the listener will be conscious of the fragmentary nature of the proceedings. There is a certain degree of pointillism in the score where ‘variations of pitch and intensity play an important part.’ (Myers, op.cit.) However, after repeated hearings it will become evident that there is much lyrical, melodic content in this work: it is heard being passed between the soloists throughout the entire work, which is also based on a vibrant contrapuntalism. Occasionally, jazz sounds break out, only to be submerged by the serial foundation of the music. Bennett has used a tone-row for this work but has not been subject to its tyranny.  I accept the view of Dika Newlin (Notes March 1971) that ‘those identifying contemporary English music [solely] with Britten should look into [this score] for a corrective.’

Some 57 years after is premiere, one is led to understand that hindsight is a marvellous thing. This work is a splendid example of Richard Rodney Bennett’s undoubted ability to compose music in a widely diverse manner, covering jazz, popular song, film scores and so-called ‘art’ music.  Calendar is a little masterpiece that deserves to be reinstated to the repertoire of chamber ensembles.  

Part II of this essay will examine the recording of Richard Rodney Bennett’s Calendar

Monday, 24 July 2017

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

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


Friday, 21 July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Bryan Kelly: Cuban Suite (c.1956)

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Fred. Delius and Arnold Bax Choral Music on Naxos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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