Friday, 28 April 2017

A Handel Story: The ‘Dear Saxon.’

There are many stories and anecdotes about Great Britain’s most famous adopted composer, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Some may be true, some imaginary and others a little exaggerated. The present tale from Anecdotes of Great Musicians by W. Francis Gates (London, Weekes & Co., 1896) would seem to have some basis in fact. Handel was definitely in Rome at the time.
Handel and Scarlatti met at a chamber music concert at the Palazzo della Cancelleria. This was sponsored by the great patron of music and the arts Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (1667-1740). There the two composers competed under the auspices of Ottoboni. The result of the contest was first equal on the harpsichord and Handel winning on the organ. The actual date of the contest would seem to be 1708, when both composers were 23 years old. Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples on October 26th, 1685, the same year that Handel appeared on earth at Halle-on-Saal on 23 February.
The story is only related in one source, Mainwaring’s Memoirs of the Life of the late George Frideric Handel (London, 1760). As this book was written many years later, there may well be some creative hagiography present in the story.
In recent years, the ‘duel’ has been recreated by performer/actors.

AN INTERESTING story is told of one of Handel's experiences when he was in Italy. The Italians so enjoyed his wonderful powers of playing that they gave him the title of ‘the dear Saxon.’ He entered in a friendly rivalry with Scarlatti, in Venice, and after many trials of skill the general verdict was that the Italian excelled on the harpsichord, but the German carried away the palm on the organ.
Sometime afterward, Handel was invited to a masked ball, and in the course of the evening he sat down at the harpsichord, and astonished all those present by his masterly improvisations. Presently Scarlatti came in, also en masque. Walking quickly to the instrument he listened a moment, and then called out, "It is either the devil or the Saxon!" 
Handel achieved this enviable reputation when only twenty-one [actually 23] years of age.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Gustave Samazeuilh: Le Chant de la Mer (1918-19) for piano

It’s not British music…but…this major piano work was one of my major discoveries in 2015. I revisited this music whilst on holiday in the Mediterranean in recent weeks. The entire piece, lasting more than 20 minutes, seems to sum up my impression of the blue skies and turquoise sea of that wonderful region.
In 2015 I submitted a review of Olivier Chauzu playing the complete piano works of Gustave Samazeuilh to MusicWeb International. I quote much of what I wrote there in this blog post.

First, a few biographical notes about the composer will help the listener. Firstly, Gustave Samazeuilh, born in Bordeaux in 1877, was destined for a career in law, but turned to music. He studied with Ernest Chausson and Vincent d'Indy at the Schola Cantorum de Paris and subsequently with Paul Dukas. Secondly, Samazeuilh became lifelong friends with Maurice Ravel and was influenced by his music. However, the most important impact was Claude Debussy. And thirdly, Samazeuilh’s catalogue of music is not extensive. Grove notes some half-dozen orchestral works, a good quantity of chamber music for a variety of instruments, several songs and the present collection of piano works. One interesting item mentioned is a Piano Sonata composed in 1902 which is not featured in the present ‘complete’ piano works. One can only assume it has not survived.  There are also a few transcriptions for piano of other composers’ music.
Stylistically, Samazeuilh’s music owes much to the impressionists, especially Debussy. Yet, there is sometimes something a little more neo-classical in these pages as well as backward glances to his two teachers.

Le Chant de la Mer (1918-19) is a massive three-movement work that is surely one of the most undervalued pieces of 20th century piano music.  The Chant is highly structured and follows a ‘well-thought out temporal and symbolic scheme’. I imagine that listeners will immediately think of Claude Debussy’s orchestral suite La Mer and wonder if Samazeuilh has created a piano companion for this work. The actual progenitors of this work are once again Ernest Chausson and Vincent d’Indy. The opening Prelude is slow and majestic as a peaceful ocean ought to be and features ‘static layers of sound’.  It is possibly more MacDowell than Debussy. The ‘Clair du lune au large’ can be perceived as an allegory of human passions expressed in terms of the movement of the tides with ‘moonlight on the waves’. The composer has not been blind to Debussy’s achievement in giving an impressionistic picture of the sea, and there are certainly several nods to La Mer, especially in the final movement, ‘Tempête et lever du jour sur les flots’ which musically paints ‘tempest and daybreak on the waves’ Here Samazeuilh makes use of ‘rapid flourishes, ostinatos and tremolos, chromatic broken-chord ascents and descents, and alternating black-and-white key glissandos…’  It is also clear to see the pianism of Liszt in this movement. 
The three movements, in order, were dedicated to Francis Planté, Marguerite Long and Alfred Cortot respectively.
I am indebted to the liner notes for my understanding of this work. There is also a section in Alfred Cortot’s major study of French piano music which is available (in French) online.  Since writing my review, I have found helpful words about Le Chant de la Mer in Norman Demuth’s essential French Piano Music with notes on its interpretation (London, Museum Press, 1959).

At the time of uploading this blog post, there are two complete versions of Gustave Samazeuilh’s Le Chant de la Mer currently on YouTube.
The first in two parts is played by Stephane Lemelin (Part I and Part 2). My preferred version is by Marie Catherine-Girod recorded in 1997. The recording I reviewed is by Olivier Chauzu and was released on GRAND PIANO GP669 in 2015. His playing on this CD is always sensitive and presents a huge range of musical colour in Gustave Samazeuilh’s largely impressionistic, but often romantic, piano works.  

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Ronald Stevenson Piano Music: Volume 2

I was confused. When I knew that I was receiving a CD of Ronald Stevenson’s piano music to review, I mistakenly assumed that it was a second volume to Murray McLachlan’s outstanding triple-disc set on Divine Art (dda21372). I had already reviewed this CD back in 2014. As it turned out, the CD in question was the second instalment of Christopher Guild’s survey for Toccata Records. Preparing for this review, I was reminded that there is yet another exploration of Stevenson’s music underway. The first volume of Kenneth Hamilton’s study of the composer’s music appeared in July 2016 (Prima Facie PFCD050). I have not heard this disc. Add to this, five versions of the magisterial DSCH Passacaglia and several other discs devoted in whole or part to this repertoire, it seems that Ronald Stevenson’s piano music has suddenly become hot property.

The rule of thumb for appreciating Ronald Stevenson’s music is to understand that his style is an amalgam of Scottish inspiration, alongside a profound understanding of contemporary Western musical developments as well as an encyclopaedic knowledge of a wide range of indigenous music from around the world. Importantly, Stevenson was equally at home in making transcriptions of other composer’s music as he was in producing original scores.

I noted in my review of Divine Art (dda21372): A good summary of Stevenson’s place in the musical sphere is given in the liner notes: - ‘If we reject, as too superficial, the standard distinctions between transcription and free composition, one comes close to understanding Stevenson’s outstanding corpus of music. Of course, individual pieces vary enormously both in terms of approach and in terms of style. It is as though Stevenson’s music as a whole becomes a kind of meeting place for kindred and diverse spirits.’ For this reason, I believe that it is not possible to describe what Ronald Stevenson’s music ‘sounds like.’’ I hold to this view.

I began my exploration of this present disc with the ‘Three Scots Fairy Tales’ which were composed in 1967. These pieces were written specifically for young players, and complement his better-kent ‘A Wheen Tunes for Bairns tae Spiel’. These three ‘tales’ explore music ostensibly from a piper, a harpist and a fiddler: all are fairies, which does not imply tiny creatures with wings from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The first is a march-cum-jig which cannot quite make up its mind what it wants to be. The second piece is a lullaby which, as the liner notes suggest, could have come from the pen of Debussy. It is truly beautiful. The final number looks across to Central Europe for its inspiration. This short piece is could be classified as ‘Bartok goes to Ballachulish.’ All three pieces are technically demanding for ‘children’: all explore a variety of moods, rhythms and pianistic devices.

A few words about Bristol-born Frank Merrick (1886-1981). He is most often recalled as a teacher and concert pianist but he also composed several important works. He was enthusiastic about then-modern developments in music and regularly played the piano music of John Ireland, Arnold Bax and Alan Rawsthorne. Merrick’s compositions include two piano concertos (c.1935), a cello suite for small orchestra, a Celtic Suite for orchestra, a piano trio and a considerable corpus of piano music and songs.  For many years, Merrick was a friend and colleague of Ronald Stevenson. The liner notes relate how he suggested to Stevenson that he make a transcription of the slow movement of his Piano Concerto No.2 in E minor. Merrick had called this movement ‘Seascape’ which was duly modified by Stevenson to ‘Hebridean Seascape.’ The reason for the inclusion of the word ‘Hebridean’ in the title was that Stevenson divined that Merrick had used a Skye fisherwoman’s song in the central section of the movement. Apparently, he had ‘collected’ this tune whilst on a visit to the island in the early years of the 20th century. Listening to Merrick’s concerto (which I enjoyed immeasurably) I felt that there was little that was Scottish in these pages: even the slow movement seems to be ‘universal music’ despite the obvious lilt of the Hebridean Song.

Ronald Stevenson’s transcription is perfect ‘sea-music’, although I must admit that it could just as well be portraying variable weather on Merrick’s native Bristol Channel. Stevenson has developed/highlighted a wide variety of ‘effects’ including the cry of the Kittiwake and the surging of waves over the rocks and beaches. The above noted ‘fisherwoman’s song’ gives this turbulent music some repose and allows for reflection ‘midst the storm. It is one of my discoveries of 2017 (so far).    The ‘Hebridean Seascape’ was first heard in the Purcell Room on 30 April 1986. 
Both of Frank Merrick’s Piano Concertos are available on YouTube: they deserve to be released onto the commercial market.

The longest piece on this CD is ‘A Carlyle Suite’ (1995). The work is presented in five movements and lasts for just over 20 minutes. The inspiration is the life, times and achievements of one of Scotland’s greatest sons, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881).  Carlyle was a man of letters, a historian, satirist, essayist, philosopher and teacher.
This highly imaginative piece looks at facets of Carlyle’s life. The opening number is an ‘Aubade’ which takes its cue from a short (and rare) poem by the author ‘Here is dawning/Another blue day’. The second piece pays homage to the writer’s wife, Jane Carlyle (née Welsh). For this, the imagery has moved to Chelsea in London. Stevenson has created a clanjamfrie of tunes and melodies which include blatant allusions to Chopin as well as Scottish Strathspeys. It is as if Chopin were giving Jane a private recital, which he did in 1848, and her mind is wandering back and forward across the border. The third movement is a cunning set of variations based on a tune used by J.S. Bach in his A Musical Offering (1747). It is subtitled a ‘Study in historical styles on Frederick the Great’s Theme.’ It is also useful to remember that Carlyle wrote a major study of the life of Frederick, which was published in six volumes between 1858 and 1865. The writing of this huge work took its toll on the author, and led to bouts of depression. The music does not really reflect this emotional turmoil, but presents the theme in baroque, classical, romantic, impressionistic, 12-note expressionist and finally ‘new-classical’ guises. It is a vade-mecum of piano styles. This is followed by Jane Carlyle’s ‘Scherzo.’ This is Scottish music through and through with references to Strathspeys. But there is also a touch of the ‘Sassenach’ Hornpipe in these pages too. The final movement, a Serenade, harks back to the opening Aubade, however this time it is tinged with shades of evening.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable work that should be well-known. I do warn the listener against approaching this tribute to the learned Carlyle with a po-face. Stevenson brings his quirky wit to many places in this score. There is humour here as well as genuine admiration.
The work was commissioned by the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association to commemorate the bi-centenary of Carlyle’s birth in the small Border Town of Ecclefechan.

Rory Dall [Gaelic for ‘blind’] Morison’s Harp Book is a transcription of music composed for the clàrsach back on the late 1600s. The liner notes include a biography of the composer, who was born in the Island of Skye, and notes about the music. Stevenson brought a variety of pianistic techniques to his reworking of this material. From simple harmonies, the use of themes in counterpoint as well as canonic devices. Topics explored include a ‘Song for John MacLeod of Dunvegan’ (Skye), the ‘Lament for a Lost Harp Key’, ‘Lonely Monday’ and the ‘Fiddler’s Contempt.’  They are truly evocative pieces that capture the mood of the Highlands of Scotland before the days of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Ronald Stevenson has invested them with a magic, poignancy and immediacy for listeners who may never choose to hear this music played on the original instrument.

I enjoyed the ‘Three Scottish Ballads’. I can recall being introduced to Scottish ballads whilst still at primary school, albeit I am sure they were well-chosen and slightly bowdlerised. In later life, I have been privileged to read Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English [& Scottish!] Poetry (1765) as well as Sir Walter Scott’s monumental Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3). In my old-fashioned mind, this volume ought to be required reading in all Scottish schools, but I bet it isn’t!
The texts of two of the three ballads that Stevenson chose to present were collected in Scott: ‘Lord Randall’, who has murdered his father at his mother’s behest and the mournful ‘Dowie Dens O’ Yarrow’, full of collusion, cowardice and murder. Readers will recall that Hamish MacCunn composed a splendid tone poem on this latter topic. Finally, Stevenson set ‘The Newhaven Fishwife’s Cry’. This ballad was not collected by Scott, but portrays the said lady wandering the streets of Edinburgh selling her wares. Without providing a musical commentary on each ballad, Stevenson has sought to transcribe the original melodies to reflect the mood of the texts.  They are masterly examples of this art.

The final work, ‘Lament for a Blind Harper’ is another arrangement: this time based on a melody penned by Ronald Stevenson’s daughter Savourna, who is a well-respected harpist. The father took this melody and arranged it for piano (left hand only). It is a fitting tribute to his daughter and to the Blind Harper who might well be Rory Dall Morison.

The liner notes by Christopher Guild are excellent and provide an essay-length survey of the composer and the music on this CD. My only complaint is that the font in places is so tiny: older eyes struggle. Fortunately, I found a digital copy of these notes on the Toccata website: I wish all record companies would provide this information. I hasten to add that Chandos, Naxos, Hyperion and a few other already do. 

The playing on this disc is superb. Christopher Guild provides a definitive account of all these works. Although this disc concentrates on works that have a Scottish or Celtic ‘flavour’ the sound worlds of Bartok or Busoni are often not too far away. The interpretation requires a universal understanding of both pianism and local music making. I look forward to Volume 3 of this cycle, and hope to be able to review Volume 1 at some stage. This is clearly a major project from Toccata Records and Christopher Guild, if the ‘complete’ piano works (original and transcriptions) are to be tackled. I imagine that it will take several years and many CDs. In my opinion, the wait will be well worth it. Ronald Stevenson was/is a larger than life character: his music deserves to be in the public domain.
Track Listing:
Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
Frank MERRICK (1886-1981) (transcribed: Ronald STEVENSON) Hebridean Seascape (c.1935/1986)
Three Scots Fairy Tales (1967)
A Carlyle Suite (1995)
Rory Dall Morison’s Harp Book (1978)
Three Scottish Ballads (1973)
Savourna STEVENSON b.1961 (transcribed Ronald STEVENSON Lament for a Blind Harper (1986)
Christopher Guild (piano)
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC 0388 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Cyril Scott: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Composer's Gallery' Part II

Most of this section of Brook’s pen-portrait needs little comment, however I have included a few notes about the many compositions mentioned towards the end of the essay. 

SOON after the outbreak of the Great War, Scott stayed for a little while with Bernard Shaw and his wife at an hotel at Torquay.[1] He still remembers that the great dramatist had just received an offer of five hundred pounds to go to America and deliver a single lecture at the Carnegie Hall, but had refused it because he couldn't see how the promoters could make such a lecture pay, and he wouldn't have liked them to be out of pocket on his account!

Scott volunteered for military service on several occasions but was rejected as physically unfit, and had to be content with playing the piano at concerts in aid of war charities. During the war years, he wrote several anonymous books on occult philosophy as well as a great deal of music.
His opera The Alchemist was written in 1918, [2] and as soon as Sir Thomas Beecham saw it he promised to have it produced at Covent Garden, but for years it was dogged by bad luck, Beecham went bankrupt before he could fulfil his promise, and then after all arrangements had been made for its production at Wiesbaden, the opera house was burnt to the ground just before the opening night. Eventually it was performed at Essen on May 28th 1925.
In the autumn of 1920 Scott went to America to play his own works and to lecture. His impressions of the United States are all recorded in My Years of Indiscretion, [3] and therefore I do not propose to write at length on the subject here. He was very surprised, for instance, to find that the people of New York never bothered to draw the blinds of their bedroom windows when undressing at night, and from his own room the prospect of no less than a hundred and sixty illuminated bedrooms was disconcerting, to say the least.
He still recalls the sort of timetable that was worked out for him: two days and two nights in a train, the recital or lecture to be given immediately on arrival, and then another two days and nights of travelling! It was on such a tour as this that he met a poetess who smoked strong black cigars and read ‘shockers’ by the dozen.
The American love of music, he found, was sincere and deep-rooted. They were prepared to pay handsomely for their music, and it was encouraging to find successful business men spending their money not upon yachts or racehorses, but in the endowment of symphony orchestras or opera. One of the few annoyances he had to endure was the type of person who asked him what he thought of Beethoven, or Bach, or some celebrity of the hour. Scott thinks that such questions are foolish. What would a parson say, for instance, if someone came up and asked him ‘What do you think of Moses?’
Of Scott's earlier works, I suppose ‘A Blackbird Song’ and ‘Daffodils’ [4] are still the most popular, but when people refer to him merely as the composer of the ‘song about the blackbird’ he wishes that the blackbird were at the bottom of the deepest ocean.

The best of the earlier works is undoubtedly ‘Sphinx’, [5] which I am told was a favourite with Ravel. Other notable compositions are his ‘Lotus Land’, [6] a richly oriental work which Kreisler later arranged for the violin, the colourful collection of pieces entitled ‘Poems’ [7] and ‘Rainbow Trout’, [8] and his brilliant Sonnet I, [9] a most original work in irregular rhythm. His Chinese Songs, [10] by the way, provoked C. V. Stanford to a tirade of indignation.

When a well-known singing professor heard Scott's setting of ‘An Old Song Ended’ [11] he asked him how he could write such peculiar and discordant harmonies to so simple and beautiful a lyric! Of his later works, his Two Songs without words [12], and ‘Mist’ and ‘Rain’ [13] are particularly effective. Scott's Ode to Great Men [14] was performed at the Norwich Festival in 1936, but this impressive work for orator, female chorus and orchestra fell short of expectations as far as reviving interest in the composer's major works was concerned. His Piano Concerto [15] has always been warmly received wherever it has been heard, yet he is amazed to find that concert promoters of the present day still regard it as a work upon which they might be involved in financial loss. For that reason, he doubts whether the British composer gets a fair chance of being heard. The neglect, he believes, is partly due to the commercialization of music.
Scott admits that the music of Beethoven makes little or no appeal to him, and he feels that the work of many of the lesser-known Russian composers compares favourably with that of Tchaikovsky. It is also his opinion that long after the death of Queen Victoria, British music was asphyxiated by Victorian propriety and correctitude. He readily admits that the BBC has done good work in taking music to the masses, but he feels that in so doing it has ‘cheapened’ music, because people regard it now as something ‘on tap’ like the water in their kitchens, and respect it accordingly.
Donald Brook, Composer’s Gallery (London, Rockcliff, 1944)
  
Notes:
[1] This was the Hydropathic Hotel (now the Headland Hotel) There is a photo of Cyril Scott taken at this venue in 1915, in the London School of Economics database of photographs.
[2] The Alchemist, the first of Cyril Scott’s operas, was composed in 1917-18. However, it had to wait until 1925 before it was given its premiere in Essen.
[3] My Years of Indiscretion, Mills & Boon, Ltd, London 1924, the first of Cyril Scott’s autobiographical books.
[4] ‘A Blackbird’s Song’ was written in 1906 on a poem by Rosamund Marriot Watson (1860-1911) and ‘Daffodils’ was a setting of a text by Ella Erskine (?)
[5] ‘Sphinx’, op.63 is a piano piece composed around 1908. The mood of the music is impressionistic.
[6] Lotus Land is probably Cyril Scott’s best known piano piece. This exotic, impressionistic work was composed and published in 1905. It was dedicated to the American composer and conductor Henry Hadley (1871-1937). The work was premiered by fellow Frankfurt Group composer, Percy Grainger at the Bechstein (now Wigmore) Hall on 15 November 1905. Other arrangements of this work include one for two piano, four hands and the above mentioned transcription by Fritz Kreisler for violin and piano (c.1922).
[7] ‘Poems’ is a collection of five piano pieces: ‘Poppies’, ‘Garden of Soul Sympathy’, ‘Bells’, ‘Twilight of the Year’ and ‘Paradise-Birds’. Each piece is prefaced by a short poem also written by the composer. They was published in 1912.
[8] ‘Rainbow Trout’ (1916) is another piano piece that exploits exotic chords and scales, creating a numinous image of a the fish swimming in clear waters. It was possibly inspired by Claude Debussy’s ‘Poisson d’or.’
[9] The ‘Sonnet I’ was written in 1914 for violin and piano. It was revised 42 years later in 1956.
[10] The composition history of Chinese Songs is a little complex. Originally composed in 1906, these two songs were ‘Waiting’ and ‘A Picnic.’ The Chinese lyrics were translated by the British diplomat and China specialist, Herbert A. Giles (1835-1935). They were eventually incorporated into Songs of Old Cathay (1919). Eaglefield Hull (Cyril Scott: Composer, Poet and Philosopher, London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd, 1918) writes that ‘the oriental feeling in these two wonderful songlets is delightfully reproduced. Whilst the first reaches the harmonic system as nearly as possible with a twelve-note scale, the second wins my preference, being filled with a delightful rattle of musical ‘chopsticks’.’
[11] ‘An Old Song Ended’ was published by Elkin in 1911. It is a setting of words by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The song was dedicated to the soprano Maggie Teyte (1888-1976). Who the singing professor was, I am not sure of.
[12] Two Songs without Words would appear to be two pieces for voice and piano. The first is a ‘Pastorale’ dating from 1919 and the second is ‘Tranquillity’. Neither song has a text, but is ‘vocalised.’
[13] ‘Mist’ was composed around 1925, to a text by Marguerite E. Barnsdale and ‘Rain’ was setting of words by Margaret Maitland Radford dated 1916.
[14] Scott's Ode to Great Men seems to have disappeared from notice. This choral piece was composed for the Norwich Music Festival and received its premiere there on 24 September 1936. It was a setting of the apocryphal biblical book Ecclesiasticus (Chapter 44) and words from Shelley. The setting was made for tenor/narrator, orchestra and women’s chorus.
[15] Cyril Scott wrote several concerted works for piano and orchestra. The one that Donald Brooks refers to is Piano Concerto No.1 in C major which was composed in 1913-14 and was premiered at a British Music Festival at the Queen’s Hall in London on 15 May 1915. Sir Thomas Beecham conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Scott as soloist. It has been recorded on Chandos CHAN 10376 and on Lyrita SRCD. 251. 
In 1958 Scott completed his Piano Concerto No.2. This has been issued on Lyrita SRCD. 251 and on Chandos CHAN 10211.  Another important work was ‘Early One Morning’, Poem for Piano and Orchestra dating from 1931. They are recorded on Chandos CHAN 10376 and on Lyrita SRCD. 251.  There is Concertinos for two pianos and orchestra, which was completed in 1931, as well as an uncompleted Concerto in D, op.10, c.1900. 

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Cyril Scott: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Composer's Gallery' Part I

Donald Brook wrote a series of books presenting attractive short studies or pen-portraits of a wide variety of musicians and authors. Sir Granville Bantock endorsed Composer’s Gallery by insisting that it ‘will be welcomed by music lovers and the larger public throughout the civilised world.’ Clearly, he had met many of these people and had a chance to speak to them about their achievements and interests. In the case of Cyril Scott, the amount of personal knowledge by Brook is less clear. It may be that he relied heavily on the composer’s autobiography, My Years of Indiscretion (1924).
On a personal note, this was one of the earliest second hand books about music that I bought in the days before the internet, it served as my introduction to a wide range of composers and their music.  I include several footnotes to Brook’s pen-portrait of Cyril Scott.

THE minor works of Cyril Scott (1879-1970) have been so successful during the past thirty years or so that ninety-per-cent of the musical public in this country regard him solely as a composer of intriguing little songs and piano pieces, and completely ignore his major compositions. [1] This is not due entirely to obstinacy on the part of either the public or the management of our symphony orchestras, for his smaller works are more easily appreciated and, on the whole, play better than his more ambitious efforts, but I cannot help feeling that Cyril Scott has been neglected to an unwarrantable extent in recent years. [2]
He was born at Oxton, Cheshire, on September 27th 1879 [3] and inherited a burning love of music from his mother, who was his first teacher. At the age of twelve he went to Hoch's Conservatoire at Frankfurt [4] to study the piano under Lazzarro Uzielli, [5] and for over four years his great ambition was to become a professional pianist. Shortly before his seventeenth birthday, however, he changed his plans completely and decided to concentrate upon composition, so instead of going to Leschetizky [6] in Vienna as he had originally intended, he returned to Frankfurt to study composition under Iwan Knorr. In the congenial company of such other English students as Roger Quilter, Percy Grainger, Balfour Gardiner and Norman O'Neill [7] the artistic life was so pleasant that whenever he returned home he found the polite society of the English provinces profoundly boring, and this was in no way relieved by his family's disapproval of his Bohemian mode of life. His ‘fantastic’ ties and long hair provoked a great deal of caustic comment among the more conventional of his neighbours.
Soon after the completion of his first symphony, [8] he returned to Germany for the first performance of it at Darmstadt. Willem de Haan [9] had conducted the first two rehearsals, but Scott was to have conducted the final one and the performance himself. In his autobiography [10] he tells us that ‘. . . although with considerable energy I waved my arms to and fro in the air, the sounds produced from that body of players bore no resemblance whatever to my symphony for all one could tell they might still have been tuning their instruments. They looked at me, it is true, but the more they looked, the more bewildered they became. It was useless for me to glance at Herr de Haan for some light on the matter he sat in immovable discomfiture in the corner of the room, his face shaded by his hand. I was dumbfounded; and in the hopes of bringing my players into line, waved my arms about even more energetically than before, but all to no purpose. Then, with a burning face I realised the truth: I had never learnt to beat time!’
Eventually, Scott appealed to de Haan to conduct for him, and then everything went smoothly. The symphony had a mixed reception: half of the audience applauded; the other half hissed, though it made a good impression upon the conductor [11] of the Frankfurt Palmengarten symphony concerts, who expressed a desire to give the second performance of the work, but never did.
His student days over, Scott was persuaded by his friends to give a piano recital in Liverpool and then to set up as a teacher of that instrument in the same city. His father gave him a hundred pounds so that he could take rooms and make a start. The net result of the recital, however, was a couple of pupils and an old gentleman who paid him half-a-guinea an hour to play Bach to him once a week.
A friend then arranged for him to meet Richter [12]. Scott called on the eminent conductor and played him his Heroic Suite. While he was so doing, Richter uttered such ejaculations as ‘most original ‘, ‘finely orchestrated ‘, ‘splendid harmonies’ and so forth, and finally informed Scott that he had written a great work. Shortly afterwards, Richter performed the Suite at Manchester and Liverpool, and although it was not particularly successful, Scott soon became a personal friend of the conductor.
Messrs. Boosey & Co. (as the firm was then known) [13] published a number of Scott's early songs, but just as the young composer felt that he was establishing himself, Arthur Boosey [14] sent for him and exclaimed bluntly: ‘I daresay you are quite clever, but your things don't sell. You must consider our arrangement at an end.’  This sudden disappointment might have had a serious effect upon Scott's work, but fortunately Mr. W. W. A. Elkin [15] asked to see him, and he eventually became not only Scott's publisher but a personal friend for many years.
Donald Brook, Composer’s Gallery (London, Rockcliff, 1944)

Notes:
[1] Cyril Scott’s catalogue is large, and covers a considerable range of genres. This includes four operas, four symphonies, more than a dozen concerted works, a vast corpus of chamber music, songs, piano pieces and choral works. Unfortunately, he is now only recalled for one or two pieces such as dream-like ‘Lotus Land’ and idyllic ‘Lullaby’, both character pieces. 
[2] In recent years, record companies (Chandos and Dutton deserve special mention) have released a wide range of Scott’s music. All the Symphonies has been issued, (No.2 in its revised Three Symphonic Dances form) as well about half the concertos, a wide conspectus of the major chamber works and about two-thirds of the piano solo music. Clearly there are major gaps in our appreciation of the composer, for example, the operas, the choral music and the songs.
[3] Oxton is on the Wirral Peninsula, part of the historic county of Cheshire. It is a suburb of Birkenhead.  Much of the area has been designated a conservation area.
[4] Hoch's Conservatoire at Frankfurt, founded in 1878 by the German lawyer and philanthropist, Joseph Hoch (1815-74)
[5] Lazzarro Uzielli (1861-1943), was an Italian pianist and music teacher.
[6] Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915), was a Polish pianist and teacher. In 1878 he established his piano school in Vienna. Famous pupils included Mark Hambourg, Paderewski and Artur Schnabel.
[7] Typically known as the Frankfurt Group. Cyril Scott, Roger Quilter, Percy Grainger, Balfour Gardiner and Norman O'Neill all studied during the late 1890s at the Hoch Conservatoire in Frankfurt with German composer Iwan Knorr (1853-1916). All of them became important, if sometimes neglected composers. The best remembered is Percy Grainger.
[8] Cyril Scott: Symphony No.1 in G major. This work was composed in 1899 and dedicated to the poet, editor and translator, Stefan George (1868-1933). It was first heard at Darmstadt in Germany, on 8 January 1900 played by the Darmstadt Opera Orchestra conducted by Willem De Haan. The Symphony has been released on Chandos CHAN 10452 (2008).
[9] Willem de Haan (1849-1930), was a Dutch conductor and composer.
[10] Cyril Scott wrote two important autobiographies. The first was My Years of Indiscretion, Mills & Boon, Ltd, London 1924 and Bone of Contention: the autobiography of Cyril Scott, The Aquarian Press, London, 1969. They are to be treated with care!
[11] The Frankfurt Palmengarten is one of two botanical gardens in the city. There was a tradition of Symphony Concerts being held there. The conductor was a certain Max Kampfert (1871-1941).        
[12] Hans Richter (1843-1916), Austro-Hungarian conductor. He was born in Raab (Gyor) in Hungary, studied at Vienna, assisted Richard Wagner at Budapest and Vienna. He was the first person to conduct the complete Ring cycle at Bayreuth.  Richter spent much time in London between 1877 and 1910: he was conductor of the Halle Orchestra between 1899 and 1911. Hans Richter retired to Bayreuth and died there in 1916.
[13] Still an active company, ‘Boosey & Hawkes originated from the 1930 merger between two great family businesses, Boosey & Company founded in the 1760s, and Hawkes & Son founded in 1865. Both were involved in music publishing and the manufacture of musical instruments. From 1930 the merged company continued this twin business activity for many decades until 2003 when the instrument division was sold, leaving Boosey & Hawkes focusing solely on music publishing.’ (B&H Website, accessed 18 March 2017)
[14] Henry Boosey. In fact, Scott/Brook appears to be referring to Arthur Boosey (1857-1919). 
[15] Mr. William. W. A. Elkin (1862-1937), was music publisher based in London. He was founder of Elkin & Co. and friend of the composer. 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Peter Racine Fricker: String Quartets on Naxos

I immediately began my exploration of this stunning new CD of music by Peter Racine Fricker, with the Adagio and Scherzo. These two pieces were composed during the summer of 1943 when the composer was in the Royal Air Force, working as a radio operator. During that year Fricker married (Audrey) Helen Clench before being posted to India as an Intelligence Officer, having recently participated in an ‘intensive course’ learning Japanese.
Interestingly, the Adagio and Scherzo are not listed in the University of California, Santa Barbara, California catalogue of the composer’s music. Neither do they appear in the current Grove’s list of works.
The liner notes, by Christopher Husted, suggest that they may be the central movements of a projected string quartet (String Quartet No.0!). At any rate, these two pieces ‘remain the most thoroughly developed work from this time.’ Fricker’s ‘official Op.1’ are the Three Preludes for piano composed between 1941-4.
The Adagio and Scherzo are immediately approachable and reflect the modernism of the day with just a hint of something undefinably ‘English’ in mood. The sound world of the two movements alerts the listener to the foundation of Fricker’s style. He was not an adherent to the hegemony of Ralph Vaughan Williams or William Walton. His mentors were Berg, Hindemith, Bartok and Schoenberg. The basic premise of his style was a free use of atonality rather than rigid serialism. Typically, this would be his compositional style for much of his career.

It is not necessary to give a detailed biography of the composer in this review, nevertheless a few notes about his career may be of interest. Peter Racine Fricker was born in London on 5 September 1920. He was descended from the French playwright Jean Racine. Fricker studied at St Paul’s School and then the Royal College of Music (RCM) where his tutors were R.O. Morris for composition and Ernest Bullock for organ. He had further lessons with the Hungarian emigré composer Mátyás Seiber at Morley College. As noted above, he completed five years of war service between 1941-46.
Two early successes were his Wind Quintet, op 5 (1947) and the Symphony No.1, op.9 (1949). The latter gained the Koussevitzky award and was premiered at the 1950 Cheltenham Festival.  The following year Fricker won the Art’s Council Festival of Britain prize for his Violin Concerto. He accepted the headship of music at Morley College (1952-64) and later Professor of Music (1955-64) at the RCM.
In 1964, Fricker was visiting professor of music at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and in 1970 he became Chair of the Music Department there. Peter Racine Fricker died in Santa Barbara on 1 February 1990.
Fricker’s compositions include five symphonies, several concertos, numerous chamber music pieces and various piano and organ works as well as the major choral work The Vision of Judgement, recently released on Lyrita (REAM.1124)

For my review of Fricker’s String Quartets, I rely heavily on the excellent liner notes by Christopher Husted. Little has been written about the composer and his music: an ‘official’ biography is a desideratum for listeners and students of 20th century British music.

There seems little doubt that Michael Tippett’s corpus of string quartets inspired Fricker. Tippett had composed his second and third essays in this form during the war years whilst working at Morley College. He had extensively revised the First Quartet in 1943 (originally composed in 1935). At the same time, Fricker’s teacher Mátyás Seiber had published a major study of the six Bartok quartets, and also began work on his own Quartetto Lirico during 1948. As Husted suggests, ‘These alone would pose example enough to any young composer; that the quartet was a traditional medium for speculation, experiment, and demonstration of skill could only have made it more attractive.’
Unmentioned in the liner notes is another source of inspiration for the String Quartet No.1: Francis Routh (Contemporary British Music, 1972) explains that it ‘resulted from sketches he made after seeing an exhibition in Battersea Park of the work of Henry Moore.’
Work on the Quartet No.1 began in 1948, and the completed work was submitted for the Edwin Evans Prize. The competition was won by Elizabeth Maconchy’s String Quartet No.5 (1948): Fricker was given an honourable mention. Fricker’s quartet was premiered on 6 September 1949 at the Salle Erard on Great Marlborough Street, London.
The Quartet is composed in a single movement, but incorporating elements of the less traditional slow-fast-slow design. The harmonic language seems to hover between tonality and atonality.
The Times (9 June 1953) made clear that this was Fricker’s first work ‘in this medium that made his creative qualities fully clear, proclaiming him something more than a promising and talented, but possibly flash-in-the-pan composer.’ Alan Frank was correct when he insisted that this Quartet ‘showed purpose, consistency of style, and skill in exposing its ideas.’ The String Quartet No.1 was dedicated to Mátyás Seiber

The String Quartet No.2 was written for the Amadeus Quartet during 1953. This work is less austere than the previous example. The music is simultaneously lyrical and dramatic, and exhibits considerable intensity. As the Times (op. cit.) reviewer declared, this work ‘clarifies the composer’s powers as a melodist…’
The quartet is written in three movements, two slow-ish outer movements with a central scherzo. The opening ‘inquieto allegro’ is propelled by a vigorous subject but also encompassing much reflective material.  Francis Routh (1972) notes that ‘the development section is unusual in that an independent subject appears as a fugue…and combines later with the material of the exposition.’ The sprightly Scherzo is a kind of ‘ghostly dance.’ The final movement is impressive: this is an adagio that builds up to a penetrating climax, and includes references to the opening movement. The Quartet closes quietly. Although presented at the end of piece, this is the heart of the work. The liner notes point out that this quartet ‘remains within friendly distance of tonal reference, with an agenda that pits E flat against F sharp.’  The work is defined by its craftsmanship: formally, the ‘technical fluency’ of the instrumentation and the exposition of the musical material.
Peter Racine Fricker’s String Quartet No. 2 was recorded in 1963 by the Amadeus Quartet and was issued on the Argo label (ZRG5372 & RG5372). It was coupled with Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 2. I have not heard this recording.

It was to be more than 23 years before Fricker turned to this genre again. By this time, he was living and working in California. Fricker came to believe that the medium of the string quartet was dead. The appearance of the American composer Elliot Carter’s masterly String Quartet No.3 (1971) changed his view. Fricker’s own Quartet No.3 is dedicated to the American.  The liner notes are keen to point out this present work is not an ‘emulation’ or ‘pastiche’ of Carter, but develops Fricker’s own brand of ‘serial strategies.’ The work is in five movements of various lengths. The core of the work is the central ‘adagio.’ This is ‘flanked’ by two fast movements which themselves are ‘flanked’ by two considerable ‘prestos.’ The finale is a set of eight variations with an impulsive coda bringing the quartet to an exciting conclusion.
The work remained un-played until the 1984 Cheltenham Festival when it was premiered by the Chilingirian Quartet on 19th July.

The Villiers Quartet give a superb performance of all these works: Fricker could not have wished for a better advocate of his corpus of String Quartets. The liner notes are first-rate, and provide sufficient information for an informed appreciation of this music.

During the early 1950s Fricker was regarded by many critics and listeners as something of an enfant terrible. On the other hand, he was deemed to be one of the most important rising stars of his generation. Other names at that time included Humphrey Searle, Elisabeth Lutyens and Iain Hamilton. All these composers have (sadly) slipped below the horizon, having been caught between the conservatism of Vaughan Williams and the avant-garde which developed in the nineteen fifties and included Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr.
In Fricker’s case his removal to California did not help him with the promotion of his music in the United Kingdom.

In recent years, some steps have been made towards reappraising Fricker’s (and the others) music, but it seems that there is a long way to go before their names are (re)established in the canons of British Music. The present disc, as well as the recent Lyrita edition noted above, is a positive start in that rehabilitation. 

Track Listing:
Peter Racine FRICKER (1920-1990)
String Quartet No.1, op.8 (1948-49)
String Quartet No.2, op.20 (1952-53)
String Quartet No.3, (1976)
Adagio and Scherzo (1943)
Villiers Quartet: James Dickenson (violin), Tamaki Higashi (violin), Carmen Flores (viola), Nicholas Stringfellow (cello)
NAXOS 8.571374 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Monday, 10 April 2017

Arnold Bax (1883-1953): Mater Ora Filium

Arnold Bax did not compose a great deal of music for unaccompanied chorus, yet the few works he did write are invariably well produced and effective for singers and audiences alike. A study of Graham Parlett’s essential A Catalogue of the Works of Sir Arnold Bax (1999) reveals six works that could be classified as being for unaccompanied chorus.

The earliest of these is ‘Mater Ora Filium’ from 1921. The following year, saw the desolate ‘This Worldes Joie’ composed to a 14th century text. The short ‘carol’ entitled ‘The Boar’s Head’ was composed in 1923 for the Blackpool Festival Committee.  Out of interest, this event was won by the Warrington Male Choral Union –still going strong under a different name. The same year saw the straightforward ‘I sing of a maiden.’  Nearly twenty years elapsed until the 1942 settings of Five Greek Folksongs – which Bax himself regarded as being based on ‘...very quaint and rather barbaric tunes…’
Virtually the last work composed by Arnold Bax was the part-song ‘What is it like to be young and fair?’  This was a setting of words by the composer’s brother Clifford. It was performed as part of the Garland for the Queen as an event at the Coronation Celebrations in 1953.

Colin Scott-Sutherland quotes a personal reminiscence by Charles Kennedy Scott – ‘His [Bax’s] unaccompanied motet for double choir, ‘Mater Ora Filium’ came later when I had the satisfaction of performing it with the Oriana [Choir] at Messrs Murdoch’s concert of recent works of Arnold at [the] Queens Hall in November 1922. I have no doubt that this and Arnold’s other motets can be associated with what Arnold heard the Oriana do at the Balfour concerts ten years earlier…’

Yet despite Kennedy Scott claiming his choir to be the stimulation for Mater Ora Filium, the immediate inspiration for this work was found at a performance by the Tudor Singers of the William Byrd’s Five Part Mass. Bax heard this work at one of Harriet Cohen’s soirees at Wyndham Place. This great liturgical setting made a huge impression on Bax; he considered it more significant than the music of J.S. Bach himself. Bax was attracted by this ‘spiritual, ornate and emotionally austere’ music.

It could be argued agued that ‘Mater Ora Filium’ is imbued with the spirit of the Elizabethan age, yet it would be unfair to suggest any kind of pastiche or archaism.  The work is a fine example of Bax’s contrapuntal technique – although use of this ‘technical’ word is in danger of giving the impression that this work has an academic nature. ‘Mater Ora Filium’ is scored for unaccompanied double chorus with a short solo for tenor. Even a superficial hearing reveals extremely difficult part writing that makes strong demands on the singers. There is a timelessness about this setting that seems to make influences and musical allusions unnecessary. It is a truly lovely anthem of devotion to Our Lady and her Son. 
‘Mater Ora Filium’ was first performed at the Queen’s Hall on 13th November 1922 by the Oriana Choir conducted by Charles Kennedy Scott.

With thanks to the English Music Festival where this text first appeared. I have made a number of minor changes and edits.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Charles O’Brien: Complete Orchestral Music, Volume 3

This is the final instalment of CDs exploring the orchestral music of Charles O’Brien. There are three works on this disc: the delightful Waltz Suite, op.26, the witty Suite Humoristique, op.8 and a second version of the dramatic Ellangowan: Concert Overture, op.10.

Jonathan Woolf reviewed Volume 1 of this  collection of music with a Caledonian twist. It featured the early version of the Ellangowan Overture and the fine Symphony in F minor, op.23. I had the privilege of submitting my thoughts on Volume 2. This included several smaller works including the evocative Highland Scenes and the overtures The Minstrel’s Curse and To Spring.

If I am honest, I prefer the ‘long’ version of Charles O’Brien’s Ellangowan Overture, op.12. The revision, which is presented on this disc, is five minutes shorter and utilises a smaller orchestra. Paul Mann is not explicit with the reasons for the cuts but suggests they may have been purely pragmatic: the possibility of more performances. Apparently, the present version was his most frequently performed work during the composer’s lifetime. So, the revision strategy worked.
The Ellangowan Overture was inspired by the great Sir Walter Scott novel Guy Mannering. It is important to note that this is an ‘overture’ and not a ‘tone poem.’ There is no attempt to create any programmatic content. O’Brien is more concerned with mood than event.  The progress of the music is filled with tunes that sound as if they are Scottish, however Paul Mann insists that all the melodies are from the composer’s head and not from a book of Highland Melodies. In fact, the fictional Ellangowan is really in the Scottish Borders: it was the home of Harry Bertram, son of the Laird.  But do not let geographical and topographical details spoil the genuinely Highland mood of this music. There is much of Felix Mendelssohn’s impressions of Scotland in these pages as well has Hamish MacCunn’s take on The Lay of the Last Minstrel (a great poem, well worthy of study) and The Land of the Mountain and the Flood.
Going back to the original version of Ellangowan, I feel that the work gains much with the two slower, more reflective passages included: it gives a greater depth to the incipient romance of this overture. It is ideal that listeners now have both versions of this splendid concert overture to choose from.

Paul Mann suggests that Charles O’Brien’s Waltz Suite, op.26 (1928) may have had its raison d’être in the demand for music to be played in the then newly-emergent cinemas. This is reflected in the relatively small-scale orchestra that the work is scored for. The Waltz Suite, which was composed in 1928, has appeared in its delightful piano version on Toccata Classics (TOCC0257).
The opening number is subtitled ‘Tendresse. It begins quietly with an oboe solo, as if a shy beau is making an ‘invitation to dance.’ The remainder of the piece is subtle in is exploration of what may well have been an allusion to the ‘Hesitation’ Waltz, introduced to ballrooms in 1910.  The second piece is called ‘Joie de Vivre’: it is exuberant, extrovert and evocative of a ballroom in full swing. Notable is the orchestral colour that the composer has derived from his small band.  ‘Jeunesse’ is marked by innocence and delight that is only briefly challenged by a dramatic encounter with horns and bass trombone. The last waltz ‘Extase’ is perfectly charming. In fact, the liner notes suggest that Charles O’Brien may have heard Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. It is an assumption that I agree with. Finally, I do think that Charles O’Brien’s Waltz Suite would have made an excellent score for a ballet.

The Suite Humoristique, op.8 was written during 1904, whilst O’Brien was studying with Hamish MacCunn. Mann is unable to state exactly when the work was first performed, but he notes that it received a couple of radio broadcasts (May 1929 & January 1939). It was also played by Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth. The Suite is presented in four movements, each composed in ternary form. The opening ‘March Fantastique’ is a quirky piece (as the title implies): I felt it was a little more Russian than Scottish in temper. The ‘Au Theatre’, a little scherzo really, is more about circuses and acrobats than a deeply-meaningful play: the middle section is wistful, rather than boisterous. I loved the ‘Barcarolle’: this is a thoughtful piece of greater musical depth than the rest of the Suite. It is elegiac in mood, and nods to Chopin by way of Edward Elgar. Despite this not being ‘Scottish music’ in tone, it reflects the composer’s feelings about his native heath. The final ‘Danse bohémienne’ is a flamboyant and vivacious waltz. It is virtuosic and makes considerable ‘demands’ on the orchestra.
The entire Suite could be classified as ‘light’ music, but that is no criticism: it is superbly scored, well-constructed and perfectly balanced.

The liner notes by Paul Mann, the present conductor, feature a highly-readable and important discussion of all three works. It has been extremely helpful to me when reviewing this CD as there is virtually no other information available on Charles O’Brien. The booklet includes the usual details about the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and Paul Mann.
I noted in my review of Volume 2 that this Latvian orchestral invests a great deal of enthusiasm and imagination into this music. Less obviously ‘Scottish’ in temper than some of the previous music (Ellangowan excepted) this music is played with understanding and sympathy. I reiterate my point that it would show some ‘gumption’ if one (or more) of the Scottish orchestras took up some of this music.  
Over the last few years, Charles O’Brien has ceased to be an ‘undiscovered composer’. TOCCATA have presented listeners with three CDs of orchestral music and two of his piano works. Listeners now have an opportunity to assess the achievement of this impressive Scottish composer.  I am not sure what other music exists in the composer’s catalogue: songs, chamber music etc. I do know that all the orchestral music has been recorded: this is a gigantic achievement.

Track Listing:
Charles O’BRIEN (1882-1968)
Ellangowan: Concert Overture, op.10 (1909)
Waltz Suite, op.26 (1928)
Suite Humoristique, op.8 (1904)
Liepāja Symphony Orchestra/Paul Mann
Toccata Classics TOCC 0299 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

A Dictionary for the Modern Pianist Stephen Siek: Book Review

Reference works are funny things. On my desk where I am writing this review, I keep my first port of call for any immediate queries: Eric Blom’s Everyman’s Dictionary of Music, 1975. I know it is hopelessly out of date, but I have been using it since my teens. It is a literary crutch: an old friend, a support in times of need and unlikely to be consigned to the charity shop. Close to my desk, I keep a copy of Percy A. Scholes’s Oxford Companion to Music (1955) the Harvard Dictionary of Music, two editions of Grove (1921 & 1961) which I picked up cheaply, as well as other musical reference books which I consult from time to time. Before anyone complains, I can assure them I have access to the latest Grove, Oxford Companion etc. And then there is Wikipedia…
There is still something comforting about a book. I like to dip into my musical (and other) reference books whilst watching telly, or sitting in the sun. I can always learn something new, or rediscover something forgotten.

Stephen Siek is Professor Emeritus of Music at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio.  His career has included regular appearances as a recitalist, a chamber musician and a lecturer on music in the United Kingdom and the States. He has contributed many articles to respected journals such as the American Music Teacher, the Piano Quarterly and American Music. Siek has written several entries for the current Grove. He is currently President of the American Matthay Association which is a flourishing organisation. 
A few years ago, (2014) I had the pleasure of reviewing his study England’s Piano Sage - The Life and Teachings of Tobias Matthay.  Stephen Siek has written the extensive liner notes the splendid series of CDs issued by APR including historic recordings by Harriet Cohen, Myra Hess, Irene Scharrer, Moura Lympany et. al.

The advertising blurb for A Dictionary for the Modern Pianist states that there are ‘nearly four hundred entries covering classical and popular pianists, noted teachers, terminology germane to the piano’s construction, and major manufacturers—both familiar firms and outstanding, independent builders who have risen to the forefront in recent years. Speaking to the needs of the modern performer, it also includes entries on jazz and pop artists, digital pianos, and period instruments.

The structure of the book is straightforward. There is a lengthy preface where the author explains the parameters of his book and its limitations. Clearly, the world of pianism has expanded rapidly in recent years, including new keyboard technologies as well as an increased emphasis on historic instruments and performance practice.  Siek declares that many entries in the present book focus on important pianists and teachers of the past 200 years or so. He believes that ‘music schools rarely seem to address the legacy of artistic piano performance in a systematic fashion.’  Siek concedes that his ‘alphabetical survey’ amounts to little more than a selective overview: otherwise the dictionary would run to several stout volumes. He declares that younger pianists have, to a large extent, been omitted. This is partially for reasons of space but also reflects the fact the ‘by the time pianists reach mid-life, it often becomes easier to evaluate the mark they are likely to leave on their profession.’
Other information not included in this book are details of ‘more general music terminology, as well as several composers who wrote extensively for the piano (and were fine pianists), but are primarily regarded as composers: Brahms, Debussy and Prokofiev. Musicians who maintained a ‘long-standing concert career, such as Liszt and Rachmaninov have been included.
A short note on ‘recordings’ follows which succinctly outlines the progress from early wax cylinders to CDs. A brief mention is made about ‘player’ or ‘reproducing’ pianos which are another kind of recording.

After the main A-Z listing there is an extremely useful appendix of dictionary entries ‘listed by category.’ It makes an interesting list. There are more than 200 entries for classical pianists, 25 for ‘famous teachers’, 40 for jazz and pop pianists, 40 piano manufacturers and a dozen references to international competitions. There are some other categories. So, more than half the book (from of a total of around 400 entries) is given over to ‘classical pianists.’
Other appendices, by several authors, include ‘A Brief Overview of the Acoustic Piano’s Action for the Performer’, ‘Historical Pianos and their relationship to the Standard Repertoire’, ‘Digital Pianos in the Modern Pianists World’ and ‘The Player Piano and the Reproducing Piano.’ The volume concludes with a bibliography,

I tested the breadth of content of this Dictionary by first taking a horizontal slice. I chose the letter ’E’: there are only eight references under this letter. The first is to the great American composer, pianist and band leader Edward Kennedy (Duke) Ellington (1899-1974).  This is followed by a hero of my teenage years, Keith Emerson (1944-2016) who was instrumental in creating a fusion between rock and classical music. He formed the group Nice in 1967 followed by the legendary Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who issued several important albums including Pictures at an Exhibition and Tarkus. He was a pioneer in the use of the electronic Moog Synthesizer. There is an important entry on the French piano manufacturer Sébastien Érard who was long associated with Chopin, Liszt and Rubenstein. Queen Victoria was a proud owner of one his pianos.  After brief cross references to the Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments by C.P.E. Bach, the Russian pianist Annette Essipoff, and the Eugene Ysaye Competition (now the Queen Elisabeth Competition), there is an article on the Soviet piano manufacturer Estonia. This company is still going, albeit in private hands: Siek includes a webpage reference.  The final entry for ‘E’ is Bill Evans (1929-80) who was one of the most important jazz pianists of the post-war years. Diversity is certainly the order of the day.

For a vertical slice of the Dictionary’s content, I took Harriet Cohen as the example. The text runs to about 600 words. It gives a good introduction to the pianist which is considerably longer than the rather disappointing two paragraphs in the current Grove. A basic biography is included as well as an assessment of her achievement.
The article includes the obvious cross-references to Myra Hess, Irene Scharrer and Tobias Matthay. It is unfortunate that there is no bibliographical information such as Cohen’s wayward autobiography A Bundle of Time, or her study of interpretation in Music’s Handmaid. The biography by Helen Fry is not cited.  I would have included a reference to the Bach Book for Harriet Cohen published by a dozen leading British composers. Unsurprisingly, mention is made of her relationship with Arnold Bax and the ensuing rift with Myra Hess. Factually, Siek is wrong when he declares that Oliver Twist was Bax’s ‘only film score’: what about Malta GC?  I was delighted to read Siek’s enthusiasm for Cohen’s interpretation of the first nine Preludes and Fugues from Book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. I too am disappointed that she never completed the project: I often listen to them in preference to more modern versions. So, all in all, an excellent overview of Harriet Cohen.

A Dictionary for the Modern Pianist is a well-produced book. The binding is strong and the quality of the paper is excellent. The text is laid out in double columns on each page. The font is readable in all cases. There are several musical examples as well as a few in-text tables and photographs.

Naturally, there will be a demand for this book in university and music-college libraries as well as many county and city reference libraries around the world. The digital version will no doubt be available through several institutions.
Priced at £60 for either e-book or hardback, I do wonder if many ‘general’ listeners will choose to purchase it. Clearly, much of the information presented here is replicated in Grove to a lesser or greater extent, which I guess most music students and scholars will have access to. Grove is also available on-line through many public libraries.

There are three main areas where this book is essential reading. Firstly, reviewers, critics, historians or performers wishing for an immediate ‘heads up’ on a pianist or pianistic matter will turn to this book as an entry point as it is specifically designed for pianists and those interested in the subject. Secondly, Siek has presented more detail about the pianists’ style and technique than standard dictionary entries. And thirdly, it is a fascinating book to ‘dip into’ just like the above-mentioned Percy Scholes Oxford Companion to Music. There is always so much to learn.
I believe that Stephen Siek has provided a wide-ranging and reliable coverage of many facets of the pianistic art.

A Dictionary for the Modern Pianist Stephen Siek
Rowman and Littlefield, 2017
302pp
ISBN 978-0-8108-8880-7 e-book; 978-0-8108-8879-1 hardback
£60.00 ($90.00)

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

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Gareth Glyn: Anglesey Sketches – Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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