Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Gluepot Connection: British Choral Music

I have had several enjoyable pints of beer at The George public house in Great Portland Street. There was always a wonderful atmosphere that seemed to exude history. I am not particularly sensitive to the supernatural, but I could not help being conscious of the ‘ghosts’ of virtually every 20th century composer that I admire. The nickname ‘The Gluepot’ was coined by Sir Henry Wood: he was always ‘frustrated’ by his orchestral players’ reluctance to drag themselves away from the bar and back to rehearsals at the Queen’s Hall.  The name ‘stuck.’  The litany of composers frequenting the bar include Arnold Bax, Peter Warlock, Alan Bush, Jack Moeran, John Ireland, Alan Rawsthorne, William Walton, Constant Lambert, Humphrey Searle and Elisabeth Lutyens. And it was not just composers. Poets Louis MacNeice, Randall Swingler, Roy Campbell and Dylan Thomas (what pub did Dylan not frequent?) were habitués. Although I tended to think of musicians and poets when drinking in The George, it is fair to say that it was also popular with employees from the BBC’s Broadcasting House at Langham Place. If only the walls could talk: what fascinating crack and conversation they could recall.

Elisabeth Lutyens wrote in her autobiography A Goldfish Bowl that ‘I remember at one lunch someone remarking that if a bomb dropped on The George a large proportion of the musical and literary world would be destroyed.’ For Lutyens, this pub was the ‘focal point’ of her social and professional life for several years. It is a testament to a largely lost era.

This impressive CD is a perfect introduction to some of the most evocative choral music composed by 20th century British composers -all with connections to The Gluepot. There are some old favourites here, alongside some new discoveries (at least for me).

The programme opens with Peter Warlock’s lovely setting of Robert Nichols poem, ‘The Full Heart.’ This piece was surely written in response to his discovery of Delius’s music whilst he [Warlock] was still at Eton College.

A new work for me is Alan Rawsthorne’s Four Seasonal Songs composed in 1956. This is a premiere recording.  The liner notes describe Rawsthorne’s choral writing here as a ‘bracing, tightly constructed style.’ Certainly, there is a vibrancy about these songs that derive from the mood of the four late sixteenth/early seventeenth century poets. Sebastian Forbes has remarked on ‘the cleaner, mostly diatonic harmony and crisper almost baroque rhythm.’ It is a work that deserves to be in the choral repertoire. Poems set include ‘Now the Earth, the Skies, the Air’ (Anon), ‘To the Spring’ (Sir John Davies), ‘Autumn’ (Joshua Sylvester) and ‘Now the lusty Spring is seen’ (John Fletcher).

I enjoyed the perfect fusion of words (James Kirkup) and music of John Ireland’s ‘The Hills’ written in 1952 as part of A Garland for the Queen. One of my favourite part-songs on this CD is John Ireland’s ‘Twilight Night’. This was composed in 1922, setting a text by Christina Rossetti. The music reflects a friendship sundered by distance and obligation but retaining an optimistic hope of meeting at some future date. A perfect conceit.

Equally effective, is Fred. Delius’s ravishing ‘On Craig Dhu’ with its extensive use of chromaticism making this music hang in the cool air, mirroring Arthur Symons’s thoughts as he sits high on this Welsh[?] Hill surveying the surrounding landscape.

And then there is ‘Verses of Love’ by Elisabeth Lutyens herself.  This gorgeous setting of words by Ben Jonson is the perfect antidote to those who still rail against the music of ‘Twelve Tone Lizzie.’ This is a longish work that explores a wide-range of choral possibilities, including tone-clusters and glissandi. It was originally published in the Musical Times in 1970. Her ubiquitous serialism has been put to one side for something infinitely more universal.

The major work on this CD is E.J. Moeran’s Songs of Springtime. This collection includes some delightful texts by William Shakespeare, John Fletcher, Thomas Nashe, Samuel Daniel, William Browne and Robert Herrick. These part-songs are influenced by Peter Warlock and reflect a charmingly English atmosphere. They are characterised by their appealing rhythmical diversity and piquant harmonies and never lapse into pastiche of their Elizabethan exemplars.  ‘Songs of Springtime’ are not easy to sing: the Londinium Chamber Choir give a perfect account.

William Walton’s ‘Where does the uttered Music go?’ (John Masefield) written for the unveiling of a memorial stained-glass window in St Sepulchre’s Church, Holborn Viaduct dedicated to Sir Henry Wood is given a fine performance. This is an appropriate ‘tie in’ to The Gluepot!

The settings by Alan Bush are first hearings for me. ‘Like Rivers Flowing’ was composed in 1957 and was dedicated to the ‘people of Llangollen and all who sing there.’ Cleary this reflects the annual Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod which was inaugurated in 1943. It was originally ‘For the WMA [Workers Musical Association] Singers, Welsh Festival’ reflecting the composer’s socialist ideals.  The text of this tender, idyllic piece was by the composer’s wife Nancy Bush.  
Bush’s other part-song on this CD is the ‘powerful response’ to the German destruction of the village of ‘Lidice’ in what is now the Czech Republic, during June 1942. This is a deeply moving and often desperately intense setting, as the events suggest, of words by Nancy Bush. The premiere was given by the WMA Singers, conducted by the composer, on the site of the destroyed village. There is a picture of this event included in the liner notes.

Although the immediate inspiration of Arnold Bax’s massive ‘Mater ora filium’ was hearing William Byrd’s Five-Part Mass at Harriet Cohen’s house at Wyndham Place, he has not indulged in parody. This work for double choir is a splendid example of Bax’s individual contrapuntal style. This is an extremely difficult piece to ‘bring off’: it does not defeat the Londinium Chamber Choir. This version is superb. Bax’s setting is timeless: it needs no argument about musical allusions or influences.
The other Bax work is ‘I sing of a Maiden that is makeless’, being a mediation on the Virgin Mary. This lovely chromatic piece is largely through-composed. It is an ideal evocation of Our Lady’s perfection. 

I cannot fault anything about this recording. The choice of music is inspirational. The singing by the Londinium Chamber Choir is near-perfect and the presentation of the CD is ideal. The liner notes give a good introduction to the repertoire and to ‘The Gluepot.’  The texts of the part-songs are included.  Composer and works dates would have been helpful in the track listings.

I understand that The Gluepot, itself has now closed (as in shut for good, not just Time, Gentlemen, Please!). It appears to be ‘under development’ so one wonders what will appear in its place? It is [probably] the end of an era. I am privileged to have drunk there and shared good conversation with friends in that iconic watering hole.

Track Listing:
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) The Full Heart (1916 rev. 1921)
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971) Four Seasonal Songs (1956)
John IRELAND (1879-1962) The Hills (1953)
Arnold BAX (1873-1953) I sing of a Maiden that is makeless (1923)
Alan BUSH (1900-1995) Like Rivers Flowing (1957)
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) On Craig Dhu (1907)
Elisabeth LUTYENS (1906-1983) Verses of Love (c.1970)
Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950) Songs of Springtime (1931)
William WALTON (1902-1983) Where does the uttered Music go? (1946)
John IRELAND Twilight Night (1922)
Alan BUSH Lidice (1947)
Arnold BAX Mater Ora Filium (1921)
Londinium Chamber Choir/Andrew Griffiths
Rec. 21-23 July 2017, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Hamilton Harty’s Irish Symphony Revisited

Hamilton Harty’s Irish Symphony stands in a line of so-named pieces including those by Sir Arthur Sullivan, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and the Italian composer Michele Esposito.  I listened to this work the other day for the first time in several years.

Hamilton Harty [born Hillsborough Co. Down] had entered several works in the Feis Ceoil in Dublin. This was a festival begun in the days after the death of Parnell in May 1897 and took the form of a competition. Harty became involved as official accompanist and soon became acquainted with the legendary singer John McCormack. Harty's String Quartet in F: Opus 1 was given its first hearing in 1900 to considerable praise from the local press. In 1904 it was the turn of his Symphony to take the prize. It was subsequently revised in 1924. Unlike the Symphonies by Sullivan and Stanford this was based firmly on Irish tunes. And there was a definite verbal programme.

The first movement is entitled 'On the Shores of Lough Neagh' - a sonata-form piece which made use of two well-known Irish melodies 'Avenging & Bright' and 'The Croppy Boy.' These two tunes make the first and second subjects respectively. A third tune - devised by the composer himself in truly Irish vein, is used in the development.
The second movement is entitled 'The Fair Day.’ In its time, this piece has often stood alone -a recording exists of the composer conducting the Hallé playing this. The local fiddler tunes up and then begins a reel - 'The Blackberry Blossom.' Further melodies are used in this well-written scherzo. A respite is gained with 'The Girl I left Behind me.' Harty was attempting to mimic the marching bands from Ulster.
The Third Movement is a Lento ma non troppo. It is given the programmatic title 'In the Antrim Hills' The composer said that this was 'a wistful lament' based on the ancient song – J’imin Mo Mhile Stor.’ A quotation from this poem provided in the liner notes for the Chandos recording:-
You maidens, now pity the sorrowful moan I make;
I am a young girl in grief for my darling's sake;
My true love's absence in sorrow I grieve full sore,
And each day I lament for my Jimin Mo Mhile Stor.'

The development of this tune is not really in a formal style. In fact, it has all the feel of an improvisation about it - this is hardly surprising as Harty was an accomplished organist and choirmaster.
The last movement is a celebration of the Battle of the Boyne - 'The Twelfth of July'. Harty's youthful acquaintance with the Orange marching bands once again coming to the fore. The tune which haunts this movement is 'Boyne Water', although the strains of the slow movement are heard -with the 'Jimin Mo' theme being restated in the finale.

Hamilton Harty’s Irish Symphony is available on Chandos CHAN 8314 and on NAXOS 8.554732.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where most of this was first published.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

It's not British, but...Nan Schwarz & Brrenton Broadstock: Symphonic Jazz

Since first hearing Earl Wild play Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major with the Boston Pops Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler, I have enjoyed ‘Symphonic Jazz.’ As the years rolled on, I have discovered several works that have become firm favourites including less well-known exemplars such as Leonard Salzedo’s/David Lindup Rendezvous for jazz band and symphony orchestra and Mátyás Seiber’s Dankworth Improvisations for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra. My all-time Desert Island Disc (in this genre) is Richard Rodney Bennett’s Jazz Calendar for twelve players.  So, I was delighted to discover several more splendid examples of the genre on this present CD.

Let’s begin with Australian composer Brenton Broadstock’s superb Made in Heaven: Concerto for orchestra. This long four-movement work is a sheer delight to listen to. The composer writes that it is a ‘musical tribute to the iconic jazz recording Kind of Blue made [by Miles Davis] in 1959.’  Other players on that ground-breaking album included Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane and Bill Evans.  Broadstock is keen to point out that Made in Heaven is not an arrangement, nor a transcription, and does not actually quote any material from the album. It is simply a starting point for an exciting fusion of jazz, rock and classical music. The composer defines it as a ‘symphonic metamorphosis.’

Broadstock’s work was composed in 2009 and had five movements, paralleling the five original tracks on the album. In 2013 the work was revised, with a movement deleted and the others reordered. The title reflects drummer Jimmy Cobb’s comment that Miles Davis album was ‘made in heaven. The four movements are ‘So What’, ‘Flamenco Sketches’, ‘Blue in Green’ and ‘All Blues’. Miles Davis aficionados will know that the missing movement was ‘Freddie Freeloader.’

There is no need to analyse Made in Heaven. It is just quite simply outstanding from end to end. I have listened to it at least three times as a part of my review: it has already become a ‘favourite.’ Although Brenton Broadstock states that it not meant to ‘recapture the jazzy coolness’ of the album, for me it is cool, laid back and thoroughly delicious.
Details of the composer and his music are available on his excellent webpage.

I then turned my attention to the four works by Nan Schwarz. I must hold up my hand: I have never listened (consciously) to any of her music. And the reason is simple. Her massive reputation is largely, but not entirely, built on film-scores both as an arranger and as a composer. I do not watch much television, and when I do, it tends to be DVDs of old favourites such as the Ealing Comedies, Carry On Films, The Avengers and other such light-hearted stuff. I very rarely go to the cinema (too much popcorn crunching for my taste nowadays), so tend to miss out on that experience. So, looking at her entry in the Internet Movie Database, does not tell me much, except that she is extremely prolific and highly regarded in the world of contemporary film music, most of which I have neither seen nor heard of. The present album turns away from the film studio into the concert hall: my interest was immediately aroused.

Four contrasting pieces are presented here.  Each feature one or two soloists. The opening Aspirations was composed in 1984 and was commissioned by Jack Elliot. At that time Elliot was Musical Director of The New American Orchestra. This organisation’s aim was ‘to present works that blend the classical European style orchestra with modern American jazz style.’ Influences on Schwartz at that time included Ravel, Walton and Shostakovich: all these had composed jazz-influenced works.
Aspirations is a through-composed piece that continuously unfolds, rather than expounds, develops and recapitulates. The saxophonist Harry Allen and pianist Lee Musiker bring considerable jazz-inspired, and often ‘smoochy,’ playing to the latter half of this gorgeous and totally satisfying tone-poem. The mood balances jazz harmonies with film music style as well as being an enduring take on the late-romantic musical style.

Schwartz’s second piece is Perspectives. The concept here is twofold: any musical idea, theme or note can be looked at from a different angle or ‘perspective’ and ‘a note can function differently and have a different emotional payoff in a different harmonic context.’
A full rhythm and percussion section is used to ‘propel the music in contemporary jazz fashion.’ Jon Delaney contributes a Pat Metheny style guitar solo.  Whatever the philosophical underpinnings of this piece, the music is once again a subtle balance of jazz and classical. It is a sheer pleasure to listen to this ‘cool’ music.

The third piece, a short Romanza (undated) does not seem to have a programme or philosophical underpinning. Schwarz writes that her aim was ‘to simply write something beautiful that touched me…’  This is well-achieved here.
The violinist Dimitrie Leivici provides a classically-balanced and often passionate solo part. This is the least jazz-inspired work on this CD: this timeless ‘Romance’ is as good as anything written in this form from the time of Beethoven onwards.

Angels among us was composed in 2003, for ‘a trumpet player and well-known symphony orchestra.’ However, the work was not given at this time.  It is finally presented on this CD in its ‘premiere performance.’  The ‘concertante’ part is played by trumpeter Mat Jodrell.  The piece opens with an atmospheric film score type of effect, before the soloist begins his sulky explorations. And there is just the odd hint of ‘Reichian’ minimalism.
There is a theological element to this music: Schwartz writes that ‘the music depicted the internal struggle between evil and good.’ And naturally we are aided and abetted by our ‘good’ or ‘Guardian’ angel. I put this concept aside and just enjoyed this thoughtful tone-poem and Jodrell’s evocative trumpet playing.

The liner notes are excellent, with explanatory essays by the conductor Kevin Purcell, the composers and Conrad Pope. There are the usual brief biographies about the composers and performers. I was unable to find a birth date for Nan Schwartz…
The notes are presented in Japanese and Traditional Chinese as well.
I cannot fault the vibrant recording of all five pieces. The balance of jazz soloists and symphony orchestra is ideal. Clearly all the performers enjoyed this music and entered the spirit of this stunning cross-over music. 

Track Listing:
Aspirations (1984)
Perspectives (2003)
Romanza (?)
Angels Among Us (2013)
The Synchron Stage Orchestra (Vienna)/Kevin Purcell

Brenton BROADSTOCK (b.1952)
Made in Heaven: Concerto for orchestra (2009, revised 2013)
Harry Allen (saxophone), Lee Musiker (piano), Jon Delaney (guitar), Mat Jodrell (trumpet), Dimitrie Leivici (violin) Bratislava Studio Symphony Orchestra/Kevin Purcell
Rec. The Synchron Stage, Vienna, 28-29 June 2016 (Schwartz); Slovensky Rozhlas, Bratislava 3 July 2016
DIVINE ART dda 25165 

Monday, 14 May 2018

Charles Villiers Stanford: Concert Overture (1870)

Dutton Epoch have recently released a splendid CD of Charles Villiers Stanford’s (1852-1924) early orchestral music written between the ages of 18 and 23. It includes three works: the Piano Concerto in B flat (1873), the Violin Concerto in D major (1875) and the present Concert Overture.
Stanford completed the Overture on 30 July 1870, when he was only 18 years old. It was written shortly before the composer took up the position of Organ Scholar at Queen’s College, Cambridge.  Jeremy Dibble notes that the Overture seems to be the earliest of Stanford’s works for orchestra alone. The previous year had seen his Rondo for cello and orchestra, dedicated to William Eisner, Professor of Music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

The Overture has remained unpublished, and according to Dibble, may have never have received its premiere in the composer’s lifetime. The first performance is likely to have been at the English Music Festival (EMF) on 26 May 2017, by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates.  A couple of weeks later it was broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Stanford’s Concert Overture reflects the musical style of Felix Mendelssohn and William Sterndale Bennett. This latter had written several overtures, which were still regularly played in 1870, including The May Queen, The Naiads, Parisina and The Wood Nymph. Listeners may also notice some influence from the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan. It was in 1870 that this composer’s delightful Overture di Ballo was first performed at that year’s Birmingham Festival.  Lewis Foreman (EMF Programme Notes) has also highlighted the potential impact of Arthur O’Leary (1834-1919), an Irish composer, pianist, music teacher and friend of the Stanford family.  

The Concert Overture is conceived as a sonata-allegro form. It begins with a slow ‘melancholic’ introduction before the music develops into a fast-moving presto.  Jeremy Dibble notes that the principal theme derives from the opening material. In contrast, the second subject is lyrical and tends towards the minor key. I certainly noticed echoes of Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Overture in these pages. The work is only seven minutes long, so there is little development. Soon the two principal themes recur, and the work ends triumphantly. The scoring of the Overture is ‘classical’ in its effect and avoids the overblown romanticism of the then prevailing Wagnerism. This is a satisfying work that belies the youthfulness of the composer: it deserves its place in the repertoire of Victorian British and Irish orchestral music.

Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, April 2018) reviewing the CD has written: Stanford's generic title for the Overture does this smiling piece of Brahmsian sunlight less than justice. Its ideas and lines are suave while the tempo is middlingly fleet. There's little storm here - more Haydn Variations than Tragic Overture, if I can push the Hamburg composer [Brahms] connection. Stanford dispenses Olympian light and contentment.

Charles Villiers Stanford’s Concert Overture can be heard on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7350.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Eugene Goossens: Pastorale and Arlequinade, op.41 for flute, oboe and piano (1924)

Eugene Goossens composed his vivacious Pastorale and Arlequinade, op.41 in 1924 for his brother, the oboist Leon Goossens.  At that time, Leon had recently formed the Philharmonic Trio along with the flautist Albert Fransella and the pianist Francesco Ticciati.

This short two-movement work balances a gentle, timeless ‘Pastorale’ with a vivacious ‘Arlequinade.’ The dictionary definition of ‘Arlequinade’ is twofold: ‘a pantomime comedy featuring the Harlequin or a clown’, and secondly, ‘any comical or fantastical procedure or playfulness.’  It is probably the latter thought that infuses this movement.
In Goossens’s exploration of these ‘moods’ there is no romance between Harlequin and Columbine nor the jealousy of Pantaloon. It is simply a summer’s day in the countryside and a mischievous romp. There is a definite nod to French composers, including Debussy, Ravel and ‘Les Six’.

Michael Cookson (MusicWeb International 7 June 2007) writes that ‘…as the title implies the opening movement evokes a gentle and sunny rustic setting, complete with occasional birdsong effects. The ‘Arlequinade’ is fresh and vivacious with an engaging degree of drama.’ Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, 4 October 2004) reviewing the Chandos recording, suggests that ‘The Pastorale is warmly allusive with…[the] flute singing and musing in the golden sun. After the baskingly reflective Pastorale, the Arlequinade takes the listener back to the mood of [his] Humoresque from [the Four Sketches,] op. 5. Arnold Bax’s playful side is echoed in these works: as in his Gopak, [the] finale of the Oboe Quintet, [the] Overture to a Picaresque Comedy and Mediterranean…’

Eugene Goossens: Pastorale and Harlequinade, op.41 can be found on two CDs:
Goossens Chamber Music, Chandos 10259 (2004). Other works include Four Sketches, op.5, Three Picture, op.55, Five Impressions on a Holiday, op.7 and Suite, op.6. The music is played by the London Chamber Music Group.British Music for Flute, Oboe and Piano,

Dutton Epoch CDLX 7181 (2007).  Other music includes works by Madeleine Dring, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Edward Maguire, Rhian Samuel, Thea Musgrave and Sir Malcolm Arnold. The soloists are Nancy Ruffer, flute, John Anderson, oboe and Helen Crayford, piano.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

It's not Britsh but...Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Busoni (Association for Private Musical Performances)

In 1918, Arnold Schoenberg and several colleagues, founded the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen
(Association for Private Musical Performances). This organisation, born in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, was a bold and largely successful attempt to enable composers to gain well-rehearsed performances of works that may otherwise have gone unheard. In many cases they produced arrangements of each other’s music to meet budget limitations.
Grove Music Online (entry for ‘Schoenberg’) notes that ‘between February 1919 and the end of 1921, when inflation put an end to the society’s activities, 353 performances of 154 works were given in 117 concerts.’ It was a sterling achievement.
A good example of this scale of economy is the opening work by Arnold Schoenberg: the Kammersymphonie, op.9. The Society was unable to afford the cost of hiring 15 players to present this work in its original ‘chamber’ form. So, Anton Webern rescored it for a smaller ensemble: flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The Kammersymphonie was originally composed in 1906: as noted, it was devised for 15 solo instruments and conductor. In 1923 Schoenberg arranged it for full orchestra. It was further revised in the United States during 1935.
I have always enjoyed Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie in its orchestral adaptation. I think that it is a splendid entry point to the complex and challenging music of the composer. 
Arguments can, and have been made, suggesting that Webern’s transcription for five soloists is more a re-presentation of the work rather than simply an arrangement. However, I enjoyed this ‘reduction’ and realise that, much as I appreciate the original, the clarity of texture and basic atmosphere of the work is apparent in Webern’s version. The performance by the Linos Ensemble is satisfying at every bar.
Finally, it is possible to spend time analysing the Wagnerian/Tristanesque element of this work, and to ponder the nods towards Schoenberg’s later atonality. Robert Craft once wisely advised that listeners concentrate on the Kammersymphonie as it exists, and not attempt to muse about ‘where the composer once was and where he is going.’

Alexander Zemlinsky Sechs Gesänge were originally composed between 1910 and 1913 as songs for soloist and piano. They are based on texts from the Symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck’s (1862-1949) book Fifteen Songs (1906). Sechs Gesänge follow a trajectory between the rich Romantic sound of Richard Wagner and the emerging modernism of Arnold Schoenberg. If anything, these gorgeous songs lie nearer to Wagner’s Wesendonk Lieder and the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. They are generally regarded as being one of the composer’s masterpieces.  The themes of the poems are the premonition of death and, surprisingly, a longing for death.  Zemlinsky orchestrated these songs in 1924.
The chamber version devised by Erwin Stein and Andreas Tarkmann recorded on this CD is excellent. It may not have the lushness and interest of the orchestral incarnation which is probably best-known. This is made up for by the lucidity of the parts in the accompaniment and their detailed interaction with the soloist.
I was seriously impressed with the wonderful singing by mezzo-soprano Zoryana Kushpler.

I do prefer the orchestral version of Ferruccio Busoni’s melancholic Berceuse Élégiaque op.42 which was composed in 1909 based on a piano piece from two years earlier. That said, Erwin Stein’s reworking of this music for the limited forces of a chamber ensemble, including piano and harmonium is typically effective.
Busoni encountered considerable personal tragedy around this time, losing both his mother and his father. The ‘programme’ for this heart-breakingly beautiful work is of ‘a man’s lullaby at his mother’s coffin.’ I confess that I put this image out of my mind when listening to this piece.  
I find that Stein’s reworking is just a little bit harsh on the ear: it does not always have the quiet sustained magic of the orchestral version (or the original piano piece). This is especially so with the penetrating woodwind (on this recording) sometimes providing a discordant note.
The premiere of the orchestral Berceuse was given in New York on 21 February 1911, with Gustav Mahler conducting the New York Philharmonic. I understand that it was the final concert that he conducted before his death.

I was a little disappointed at the parsimonious duration of this CD. At 47 minutes it does suggest that the Linos ensemble could have found another number or two from the 154-works presented at the Association for Private Musical Performances concerts. 
The liner notes, by Christian Heindl, are comprehensive and are presented in German and English. It would have been good to have included translations of Maeterlinck’s poems. Helpful details are provided about Zoryana Kushpler and the ensemble.

All in all, this is an impressive project. If I am honest, I will not be swayed away from the orchestral versions of these pieces. On the other hand, this an important historical document which present arrangements of works that were made for a social and economic reason: the possibility of performance. Over and above this, as already noted, the reduced forces of the chamber ensemble can reveal details and bring clarity to the music that is denied to the denser originals.

Track Listings:
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951) Kammersymphonie, no.1, op.9 (arranged for chamber orchestra by Anton WEBERN (1883-1945) (1906/1923)
Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942) Sechs Gesänge, op.13 ‘Maeterlinck-Gesänge’ (arranged for voice and chamber ensemble by Erwin STEIN (1885-1958) nos. 2&5 (1910-14/1921); Andreas TARKMANN (b.1956) nos.1, 3, 4 & 6) 1910-14/?)
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924) Berceuse Élégiaque, op.42 (arranged for chamber ensemble by Erwin STEIN) (1909/1921)
Zoryana Kushpler (mezzo-soprano); Linos Ensemble
Rec. Deutschlandfunk Köln, Kammermusiksaal October 2011
CAPRICCIO C5138 [47:50]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Saturday, 5 May 2018

William Alwyn: The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture (1933) Part II

The first performance of The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture was during at a BBC concert broadcast on 8 December 1935 at 5.15 pm. ‘Section C’ of the BBC Orchestra were conducted by Aylmer Buesst. Other works heard were a Prelude and Gigue by J.S. Bach arranged by Gerrard Williams, Edward Elgar’s Sea Pictures with Muriel Brunskill as contralto soloist, Ravel’s arrangement of Claude Debussy’s Sarabande and Dance, two songs by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (‘Silver’ and ‘Five Eyes’) and concluding with the ballet suite from Jules Massenet’s La Cigale.  
The Naxos recording, dating from 2006 may be the first opportunity since that broadcast to have heard this work.

The earliest review I can find of The Innumerable Dance was in W.R. Anderson’s ‘Wireless Notes’ published in the Musical Times (January 1936). He wrote that it ‘showed the lustiness of spring, and is in a more attractive idiom than some of the composer's other works...’

The longest single discussion of this work is in the eponymous study by Adrian Wright (The Innumerable Dance: The Life and Music of William Alwyn, Boydell Press, 2008)
Wright begins by suggesting that this is a ‘vignette’ and not really an ‘overture.’ He notes the work’s premiere and cites the Musical Times review before reminding the reader that it comes from Blake’s poem ‘Milton’, which was ‘very much in Alwyn’s mind during this period. These words display ‘the vernal, perpetually recurring business of Spring, of honeysuckle, herb and flower.’’  
After describing the ‘opening whispered passage’ and its gradual building up, Wright feels that the ‘typically Alwynesque climax’ is ‘more symphonic, perhaps than almost anything he had attempted before.’
Wright remarks on the ‘orchestral comments’ made during the dance: these include ‘brass alarums alongside reflective woodwind sequences.’ He concludes his analysis by noting that ‘the Bacchanalian interventions (blaring brass, for a moment) that break through the steady rhythm of the dance lead on to a positive finale which reasserts its Baxian wildness.’

The Naxos CD was reviewed by Christopher Thomas (MusicWeb International, March 2007). He reminded the reader that Alwyn was in his twenty-eighth year at the time and ‘as such reflects a less individual though no less finely honed compositional voice.’ Thomas suggests ‘the influence of several composers’ flits across the surface of the music. Not that this fact detracts from the overall result, which is both beautifully orchestrated and charming.’  Finally, he concludes with amazement that ‘this is music, that has gathered dust for so long’ and considers it ‘entirely fitting that the RLPO give it a thoroughly convincing premiere recording.’

Jonathan Woolf, also for MusicWeb International (February 2007), felt that the The Innumerable Dance was ‘most appealing…in the more verdant and openhearted sections where Straussian effulgence reigns. The more cock-eyed folkloric sections have a distinctly Graingeresque cast and are full of fun and enjoyment.’

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

William Alwyn: The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture (1933) Part I

I first came across a reference to The Innumerable Dance in William Alwyn: A Catalogue of his Music, compiled by Stewart Craggs and Alan Poulton. (Bravura Press, Hindhead, 1985). In the section detailing ‘Orchestral Works’, the entry simply suggested this work existed, had been composed in 1935 and was first heard during a BBC radio concert on 8 December 1935. The score was unpublished, and the editors were ‘unable to trace’ the instrumentation of the piece.
In those days, there was an understanding that virtually all of William Alywn’s early compositions had been ‘disowned’ if not destroyed by the composer in 1939. The earliest work usually referred to as being part of this opus was the ‘Rhapsody’ for piano quartet. Clearly, music that had been was composed up to that time for films was in the public domain. Additionally, several works had been published: these could not be ‘disowned’. Alwyn’s new beginning is usually marked by the Divertimento for solo flute (1940).

It was not until the release of a sizeable portion of Alwyn’s orchestral music on the Chandos label in the 1990s that some of his earlier, forgotten music began to be rediscovered. This included works such as the Piano Concerto No.1 (1930), the Violin Concerto (1937-9), the Tragic Interlude for Two Horns, Timpani and String Orchestra (1936) and the Pastoral Fantasia for Viola and String Orchestra (1939). 
In the following years, a succession of releases from Naxos, Somm and Dutton Epoch provided Alwyn enthusiasts with virtually all the pre-1939 orchestral works, as well as several chamber and piano pieces. This included Derybeg Fair: Overture for orchestra (c.1922), Ad Infinitum: tone poem for orchestra (1920s), Blackdown: tone poem for orchestra (1920s), Five Preludes for orchestra (1927), Serenade for orchestra (1930s), Aphrodite in Aulis: Eclogue for small orchestra (1932) and several other equally interesting pieces.
One of these discoveries was the The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture. This was released on CD by Naxos (8.570144, 2006) and featured the Elizabethan Dances (1956-7), the Concerto for oboe, harp and strings (1943-4), the Festival March (1951), the Symphonic Prelude: The Magic Island (1952) and Aphrodite in Aulis: Eclogue for small orchestra (1932). David Lloyd-Jones conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture owes its inspiration to some verses from William Blake’s esoteric poem Milton. The score is prefaced with several lines from the second book of this work:
First e'er the morning breaks,
joy opens in the flowery bosoms,
Joy even to tears, which the suns rising dries:
first the Wild Thyme
And meadow sweet, downy and soft waving among the reeds,
Light springing in the air, lead the sweet dance;
they wake
The honeysuckle sleeping on the oak,
the flaunting beauty
Revels along upon the wind; … every tree
And flower and herb soon fill the air with an
innumerable dance,
Yet all in order sweet and lovely.
The poem ‘Milton’ was conceived by Blake in two books which were written and etched between 1804-8. Literary experts suggest it is one of his most complex mythological works. It is largely a response to the work of the poet John Milton and his Paradise Lost where Blake seems to become ‘permeated’ with spirit of the elder poet. Whatever the deeper symbolism of Blake’s words may be, a straightforward reading of this text implies a paean of praise to Nature and to Spring.
The Innumerable Dance was not the only piece of music inspired by the poet Blake. For several years (1933-38) Alwyn had been working on a large-scale cantata, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell for soloists, double chorus and orchestra. This major work remains unpublished and, to my knowledge, unperformed.
Alwyn’s Overture was completed in November 1933. It was written for a standard ‘full orchestra’ with the addition of glockenspiel, celeste and harp.

The Innumerable Dance is not really an overture at all, but a short tone poem. The opening section of the work begins quietly with the almost impressionistic sound of muted horns and tremolando strings. The music gradually builds up to a powerful climax, which represents the rising of the sun or perhaps ‘Joy even to tears.’ After a short pause, this is followed by a vibrant dance which presents the idea of nature exploding into life, echoing the lines ‘Every tree…And flower and herb soon fill the air with an innumerable dance…’ revealing Blake’s vision of nature in all its glory.  

The musical style of The Innumerable Dance: An English Overture (1933) is eclectic. Commentators have discovered intimations of Frederick Delius and Ernest J Moeran in these bars. Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, 6 December 2006) has noted a similar mood to Frank Bridge’s Enter Spring and John Fould’s April-England. Both these works are evocative of the bursting forth of life at the springtime of the year.
To be continued…

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Michael Balfe’s Strange Roommate: A Gothic Tale…

Michael Balfe was an Irish composer. Born in Dublin in 1808, he was the son of a dancing master. Balfe was a precocious youth: he learned to play the violin to sing and to compose at an early age.  Whilst singing Italian opera in France and Italy, he became acquainted with several masters of day, including Cherubini and Rossini.  In 1833, Balfe returned to England, where he produced a series of light operas. The most enduring is The Bohemian Girl, premiered in 1843. He continued to tour Europe and visited many countries including France, Spain, Italy and Russia. In London he held the post of conductor at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket for several years. In 1864 he retired to a farm at Rowney Abbey in Hertfordshire. Michael Balfe died there in 1870.

‘The composer of the popular Bohemian Girl once had an experience that he did not care to duplicate.
Landladies are not supposed to be very sentimental beings, at least toward their lodgers, but have the reputation of being business-like and matter-of-fact; but the one who caused this peculiar occurrence, in which Balfe was an interested party, certainly stood at the head of the procession in her delight in silver rather than sentiment.
Balfe and other musicians were engaged for a short time in some musical doings on the outskirts of London, and rather than go back and forth from the city each day, they decided to take rooms for the time in that neighbourhood.
But apartments were scarce, and the genial Irishman was compelled to take what offered at a house not any too prepossessing in its external appearance.
It was quite late. The landlady was uncertain whether there were any spare rooms or not; but left him standing in the hall-way while she went to see if she could arrange a room for him. Finally, she returned and told him in a confused way that his apartment was ready.
Tired by the day's labour, he soon fell asleep without examining the room, but early the next morning proceeded to make a tour of his apartment. He had not one far before he discovered in a closet opening from his room a corpse, which had evidently been put in its cramped quarters in great haste.
Balfe stopped not on the order of his going, but took his departure, thankful, however, that he had not made the discovery in the moonlight of the night before. The old lady had evidently been unable to withstand the temptation to make a little ready cash, and summarily deprived the body of her deceased relative of its temporary resting place, and Balfe had calmly stepped in and taken its place.
He used to joke over the landlady's eye to business, but that experience so impressed him that he never occupied a strange room without making an examination prior to sleeping in it.’

From Anecdotes of Great Musicians by W. Francis Gates (1895), with minor edits.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Caneuon Gareth Glyn (Songs of Gareth Glyn)

This is an enjoyable CD of songs by the Welsh composer Gareth Glyn. They have been composed over his entire career with the earliest dating from 1970 and the most recent in 2015.  They are sung here by tenor voice, but not all were first conceived in this form. The first, eleventh and the last feature all ‘Three Tenors’. Glyn is not afraid to use ‘modern’ technology: he is perfectly happy to feature keyboards, bass and drum kit where he feels it is appropriate.

I want to reflect on what for me were highlights. The opening song, Gwynt yr Haf (Summer Wind) is possibly the most appealing of the set. This was composed in 1974 and was subsequently recorded by the Welsh five-piece female vocal group Sidan. The song is all about strolling with one’s lover in the countryside, presumably Welsh, on a beautiful summer’s day. It is powerfully sung by the ‘Three Tenors.’

The second song on the disc is much more in the mould of an art song. Araf y Tipia’r Cloc (Slowly the Ticking Clock) was written in 1970; it is the earliest work on this CD. The composer explains that the poet describes ‘a traditional Welsh kitchen displayed in a museum, but longs to see and hear the family which would once have occupied it.’ It is a moving number that reveals Glyn’s skill at setting words and creating an appropriate musical mood.  

The most significant work on this disc is the first recording of the song cycle I Wefr Dadeni (Life Reborn) composed in 1995. It was commissioned by Wynford Evans (1946-2009). After recovering from surgery, Evans ‘vowed to travel widely giving concerts to celebrate what he saw as his ‘rebirth’.’ The five songs all reflect this idea of rebirth.
The opening number, Y Pair (The Cauldron), compares a ‘coal-blackened collier,’ entering his tin bath to a warrior placed in the Cauldron of Rebirth found in the great Welsh legends known as the Mabinogion. The second song, more predictably, majors on Golgotha and Christ’s suffering and resurrection. The concept of Resurrection is continued in the song Eirlysiau (Snowdrops), where the poet sees the early snowdrops as an allegory for believers at the Last Judgement ‘clad in dazzling white raiments.’ Equally symbolic, is the Y Gwanwyn (Spring) which matches the ‘birth’ of an early primrose with the revelation of the empty tomb. The music here is passionate and reflects the fast-paced poetical examination of metaphors connected with this new birth. The final song is all about the onset and implications of middle and old age. Again, Sialens (Challenge) is an ardent song which concludes with the challenge ‘I’ll not surrender, but come young and free/I know, from my sore strife, when that shall be.’ It is an effective and demanding song cycle that deserves much better recognition. All the songs in the published cycle have English lyrics too, so the material is there for anyone who might consider making a recording in that language.

Turning to a different genre, Fy Ngeni dan Felltith Mam (Born under a Mother’s Curse) was taken from the musical ‘Gwydion’. This was first heard at the 2015 National Eisteddfod. Glyn has provided a new arrangement of this song with the refrain including the ‘three tenors.’ It is a rather splendid number which is probably better than anything written by Andrew Lloyd Webber (in my opinion!). The song derives from the Mabinogion legend of Blodeuwedd, where a young man complains to his mother that she has laid three curses on him: one of these is that he could never have a human wife.

The final track also features the three tenors. Carol y Seren (The Star Carol) is one of the composer’s most popular pieces. The carol was a winning entry in a 1984 competition to write and compose a carol for Trebor Edwards. Glyn’s wife provided the text. He has arranged this attractive number for many combinations, including soloists, massed choirs with orchestra and ‘everything in between. It is, as they would say in the North of England ‘a reet good sing.’

It was unfair of me to select only nine of the songs on this CD. I enjoyed all of them. Up to now I have only really known Gareth Glyn as an orchestral composer. Certainly, based on the works presented here, Glyn deserves an accolade for his vocal music which provides ‘excellent examples of his skill for setting words, clothed in the most loving and sensitive melodies and harmonies.’ (Dr Alwyn Humphreys MBE, CD liner notes).

One of the problems with this CD release is the lack of an English translation of the songs. Most CDs of lieder and song that I have reviewed provide this essential facility which allows the listener to engage fully with the singers and the songs. I accept that that the gist each number is presented in English in the liner notes.
It would be a pity if this attractive CD does not gain traction beyond the Welsh border, simply because most people do not understand the language. The rest of the liner notes are given in both languages.
The sound quality of this disc is excellent. Whether it is the singers, the piano or the keyboards, it is all superbly performed.
I did feel that the programme was a wee bit short: 49 minutes does seem a little mean for a CD these days. I am sure that Gareth Glyn has many more songs up his sleeve that could have been included.

On the other hand, this disc presents a song-cycle and 14 other songs which are all approachable, enjoyable, and with limited resources for non-Welsh speakers, sometimes exciting and at other times quite moving.

Track Listings:
Gareth GLYN (b.1951)
Gwynt yr Haf (Summer’s Wind) (1974)

Araf y Tipia'r Cloc (Slowly the Ticking Clock) (1970)
Llys Aberffraw (The Royal Court of Aberffraw) (2007)
Brodyr Maeth Hywel (The Royal Court of Aberffraw) (2007)
I Wefr Dadeni (Life Reborn) (Song Cycle) (1995) Y Pair (The Cauldron); Golgotha; Eirlysiau (Snowdrops); Y Gwanwyn (Spring); Sialens (Challenge)
Carol yr Alarch (The Swan Carol) (1989) 
Fy Ngeni Dan Felltith Mam (Born under a Mother’s Curse) (2015)
Llanrwst (1988)
Ionawr (January) (2001)
Eirlysiau (Snowdrops) (2001)
Crafangau (Talons) (1970)
Carol y Seren (The Star Carol) (1984)
Rhys Meirion, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Rhodri Prys Jones
Annette Bryn Parri (piano and keyboards), Owen Lloyd-Evans (bass), Graham Land (drums)
Rec. Stiwdio Sain, Llandwrog April-June 2017
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Paul Carr: Crowded Streets

It came as a surprise to me when I discovered that this hugely enjoyable CD of music by Paul Carr had been reviewed for MusicWeb International by Rob Barnett way back in October 2001. I honestly thought I was getting first crack at a brand-new disc. I have reviewed a few CDs of Paul Carr’s music: somehow the original release of this one must have passed ‘Beyond my Ken.’ But late is much better than never: it has been a rewarding experience to explore these six charming, interesting, and thoroughly entertaining works.
There are two levels of music on this CD. Firstly, what I have called ‘Suburban Sunday’ music. I coined this phrase after playing through a suite of piano pieces by Philip Lane called Leisure Lanes which included a piece of that title.  On the other side of the coin, there is a more neo-classical-inclined style to Carr’s music, not quite Poulenc, but certainly ‘cool’ and musically competent.

The first of the two-major works on this CD is the Concerto for Clarinet and Small Orchestra which was composed in 1997 and dedicated to the present soloist, Andrew Franks. Paul Carr writes that it is one of his own personal favourites. The small orchestra is literally a chamber ensemble, comprising wind quintet, trumpet, harp and only seven strings. Written in a typically ‘suburban stroll’ style of music this piece has echoes of Gerald Finzi and Eric Coates (Barnett 2001). The opening movement fairly bowls along, with only a few moments of repose. The restrained cadenza leads gently into a thoughtful coda. The middle movement is both sad and reflective whilst not lacking optimism. This is the gorgeous heart of the work, and features a pretty tune, which dominates the proceedings. The finale has a touch of the toccata about it. Nevertheless, there are some relaxed sub-jazzy moments, and contrasting episodes which are quite delicious. Altogether a most satisfying concerto, splendidly played.

I relished the Occasional Postcards for wind quintet and strings which was composed in 1993. It is written for wind quintet and strings. The liner notes tell that this work has become one of Carr’s most frequently performed works: at least it was in 2001.  The concept of the work is five short ‘postcards’ depicting ‘memorable occasions’ in the composer’s life. These include: ‘Through Crowded Streets’, referring to Brighton on a busy Saturday morning; ‘Bicycles in the Summer Rain’, reflecting a day spent in Kensington Gardens; back to Brighton for the self-explanatory romp of ‘The Boys on the Beach’, ‘Summer Evening’ recalling an evening in an orangery on L’Île Saint Louis in Paris and finally ‘Tuscan Diary’ which recollects a ‘seductive frisson’, the ‘brightness of Florence and the warm passion of Italy. Delightful.

My favourite work in this CD is the moody, groovy, Concerto for Two saxophones and orchestra dating from 1994. I have no doubt that this work would be a strong crowd pleaser at any concert that was not hidebound by excessively highbrow expectations. The work was written expressly for the present soloists Andrew Franks and Andrew Sutton. Carr has suggested a listening strategy for this work: ‘I like to think of it as a dialogue between the two solo instruments as a love affair…’ It is a good way of approaching this tempting three-movement work. Especially appealing, is the lovely second movement, ‘andante cantabile.’

I guess that I was a wee bit disappointed with Girl on a Beach under a Sunshade, a miniature for bassoon and orchestra. This piece was inspired by an evocative sketch made by Sir Alfred Munnings of the composer’s great aunt, Gwenneth Jones-Parry, lying on a Cornish beach sometime in 1916. A reproduction of this sketch is provided in the liner notes. This piece is not as impressionistic or languorous as I would have imagined (or liked). In fact, there are some acerbic chords that owe more to the history of the times, rather than an idyll of a beach. Despite this, it is beautifully written and allows the bassoonist full range of his talent. The main theme is beguiling. It should be in the repertoire of all bassoonists.

Collage - concerto in one movement for saxophone, piano and chamber orchestra, is a pleasant ramble for the soloist. This fifteen-minute work is conceived in two discrete sections. The first half is dominated by the saxophone, before the piano takes over at the halfway point. Paul Carr writes that ‘the solo sax sails across a sea of changing colours’: this is probably some of the most classically (modernist) contemporary music on this disc, but not unapproachably so. The second section is ‘more funky and suburban’ in its style. The work was apparently through-composed: beginning with a single idea, then adding a new one with the material continually changing rather than evolving. Hence the title ‘Collages.’ The composer relates that he rarely composes music without a formal plan. The present work really stream-of-consciousness; and none the worse for that.

Rob Barnet (2001) has described Nocturne on an American Hymn Tune as ‘chill-out’ music. I agree. There is nothing religious or po-faced about this music. It features drum kit, electric bass, piano (played by the composer) and saxophone. It is a perfect conclusion to this CD. My only complaint about this Nocturne is that it is way too short!

This CD is nicely presented. The liner notes are written by Paul Carr, with additional material about the soloists and the Sussex Symphony Orchestra and their conductor, Mark Andrew-James. I appreciated the ‘moody’ cover by Paula Cox, featuring musicians in the ‘groove.’ I consider that that all these pieces were well-played, with exceptional performances by the soloists.

Track Listing:
Paul CARR (b. 1961) 
Concerto for Clarinet and Small Orchestra (1997)
Occasional Postcards 
for wind quintet and strings (1993)
Concerto for Two saxophones and orchestra (1994)
Girl on a Beach under a Sunshade
- concerto in one movement (1998)
Nocturne on an American Hymn Tune
(for Cy) (1998)
Nicholas Carpenter (clarinet) (Concerto); Andrew Sutton (saxophone, clarinet) (Postcards, Concerto)  Andrew Franks - (saxophone) (Concerto, CollageNocturne); Joseph Laurent (flute) (Postcards); Adrian Roach (oboe) (Postcards) Duncan Fuller (horn) (Postcards); Sarah Martin (bassoon) (Postcards); Huw Jones (bassoon) (Girl)
Yuri Paterson-Olenich (piano) (Collage); Paul Carr (piano) (Nocturne); Francois de Ville (Electric Bass) (Nocturne); Huw Jones (Drum Kit) (Nocturne)
Sussex Symphony Orchestra/Mark Andrew-James
Rec. St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton, 5-6 Sept 1998 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Thursday, 19 April 2018

The Organ of Coventry Cathedral, played by David M. Patrick

This superb retrospective of French (and Belgian) organ music opens with Alexandre Guilmant’s Grand Choeur in D. It is subtitled ‘alla Haendel’ and certainly bounces along. Bearing in mind that it was completed in the French town of Boulogne-sur-Mer it could be subtitled ‘Handel by the Seaside’, in a humorous nod to Percy Grainger. 

Louis Vierne’s ‘Carillon de Westminster’ needs no introduction. It is the sixth piece in the third of Vierne’s four-suite set 24 pieces de fantaisie, published in 1927. The Carillon must be one of the most popular pieces of the composer’s music, along with the ubiquitous Berceuse (which even I can play) and a few overworked ‘finales’… This is one of the great war-horses of the organist’s repertoire. Vierne’s other ‘Carillons’ are worth digging out, including that of ‘Longport’ and ‘Les cloches de Hinckley.’

The ‘Feux Follets’ was published in the second suite of the 24 pieces de fantaisie. This is an impressionistic little piece, difficult and quite wayward. The liner notes point out that it often seems to be about to ‘find’ a tune, only for this to vanish, like a Will o’ the Wisp. It is magically played here.

I have never taken to Camille Saint-Saëns Rhapsodie No. 3 for organ. From my first hearing of this work back in the early 1970s, l thought that it grinds along without getting anywhere: it seems to me to lack structure. Others will naturally disagree. The composer makes use of Breton folk tunes to point up the work’s programme which was derived from a pilgrimage to the Pardon de St-Anne-de-Palaud.  I concede that there is some imaginative organ writing in these pages, but somehow it just does not do it for me.

Theodore Dubois’s ‘Toccata’ is one of those big French Toccatas that never fails to please. The work is in ternary form with a quiet restrained middle section surrounded by a bustling ‘moto perpetuo’ where the focus of interest is in the swift passages for the manuals. It is the third piece from the composer’s Douze Pièces published in 1886. Despite the composer having a Cavaille-Coll organ at the back of his mind when he wrote this ‘Toccata’, it works perfectly well on Coventry Cathedral’s Harrison and Harrison instrument.

I was quite taken by Henri Mulet’s ‘Rosace’. I have never knowingly heard this piece before. As a child, Mulet had witnessed the building of Sacré Coeur in Paris from his home in Montmartre. In fact, his father was onetime choirmaster at that iconic church. In 1920, Mulet composed the Esquisses Byzantines which were a series of impressions depicting various aspects of the building. The present work, ‘Rosace’ is a ‘dreamlike response’ to the kaleidoscopic patterns of the gorgeous rose window, which represents the ‘Sacred Heart.’

Most organ music enthusiasts know the ‘big’ works by Maurice Duruflé: the Prelude and Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, op.7, the Suite for organ, op.5 and the Prelude, Adagio and Chorale Variations on ‘Veni Creator’, op.4. I guess fewer will know the present piece, ‘Chant Donné’ (1949). This began life as a harmony exercise published in 64 Leçons d'Harmonie, offertes en hommage à Jean Gallon.  Gallon had taught several illustrious musicians between 1919 and 1948, including Olivier Messiaen, Henri Dutilleux and Paul Tortelier. It is hard to know if Duruflé had the organ in mind when he wrote this piece. The holograph was written on two staves, but when published it was in four-part ‘open score’ printed in antique notation
It has subsequently been arranged and published for organ. This quiet piece is infused with Gregorian chant and modal harmonies: it is quite simply gorgeous.

Olivier Messiaen’s Le Banquet Celeste is a great introduction to his organ music. There is nothing here to frighten the timid! It is an early work, dating from 1925. The ‘programme’ is a mediation on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. It is not necessary to bear theological concepts in mind whilst enjoying this deeply reflective music. The one feature that will grasp the listener is the timelessness of the music. Despite being only six minutes long, it seems to last forever: and we (at least some of us!) do want it to last for ever. This bending of time would become one of Messiaen’s most beguiling traits.

Joseph Jongen’s Sonata Eroica is his masterpiece. It would be easy to describe Jongen’s musical style as a compendium of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century music ranging from Franz Liszt to Olivier Messiaen by way of Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss, Paul Dukas and Igor Stravinsky. However, this description does not do justice to this highly-developed score. This is a sonata in name only. It would be better to describe it as a set of variations based on what may be an Ardennes folk-tune, preceded by a powerful introduction and concluding with a fugato and carillon-like coda.
The Sonata was commissioned by Belgium Radio in 1930 for the opening recital of the new organ in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels: it is dedicated to Joseph Bonnet, onetime organist at St Eustache’s Church in Paris. I enjoyed this performance from end to end.

I have not heard Guy Weitz’s massive Symphony No.1 for organ before. Weitz was born in Belgium, studied with Alexandre Guilmant and Vincent d’Indy in Paris and arrived in England as a refugee at the outbreak of the Great War. He was appointed organist at the Jesuit Church in Farm Street, Mayfair, where he remained until 1967.  Musically, Weitz’s music has echoes Widor, Vierne and Dupre. His native composers did provide influence too: Cesar Franck, Paul de Maleingreau and to a lesser extent, Flor Peeters.  The liner notes explain that the Symphony No. 1 was composed in 1930 and takes it musical material from the plainsong chants associated with ‘Mary the Mother of God.’  The first movement, a massive song of praise, derived from the ‘Ave Maria.’ The middle movement takes its subject matter from the ‘Stabat Mater’, where Our Lady is kneeling at the foot of Jesus’ cross. This music is characterised by sadness, reflection and anguish. The finale is based on the plainsong hymn ‘Ave Maris Stella’, Hail Mary, Star of the Sea. It is really a classic ‘French’ style toccata that brings the Symphony to an impressive conclusion.  This work can be enjoyed without its Christian underpinnings: it is a great work that deserves to be in the repertoire of all concert organists.

The text of the booklet, written by Ian Wells is excellent, with detailed and readable notes about each work and their composers. The notes are in printed in English, French and German. There is the all-essential specification of the large four-manual Harrison and Harrison organ, with the briefest of historical notes. For the curious, it was installed in 1962 at the time of the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. Alas, there is no overall photograph of the organ, (there is a tiny picture of the present organist and some organ stops, which is not Coventry) and no biographical details of the organist. For this information, the listener needs to visit the Impulse Music webpage. At present, David Patrick is based in Exeter.
The sound quality of this CD is splendid. The organ sounds fantastic and the playing of all these works is exemplary.
This is a fine exploration of French and Belgian organ music that features old favourites and, for some of us, new discoveries. It is thoroughly enjoyable from end to end. 

Track Listings:
Alexandre GUILMANT (1837-1911) Grand Choeur in D (c.1886)
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937) Feux Follets, Carillon de Westminster from 24 pieces de fantaisie (1926-7)
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) Rhapsodie no.3 (1866)
Théodore DUBOIS (1837-1924) Toccata in G (1886)
Henri MULET (1878-1967) Rosace, from Esquisses Byzantines (1920)
Maurice DURUFLÉ (1902-1986) Chant Donné (1949)
Joseph JONGEN (1872-1953) Sonata Eroica, op.94 (c.1930)
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-92) Le Banquet Céleste (1928)
Guy WEITZ (1883-1970) Symphony No.1 (1930)
David M Patrick (organ)
Rec. Coventry Cathedral 27 April, 2017; 1 May, 17 July 2015
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Monday, 16 April 2018

Richard Rodney Bennett: Celebration for orchestra (1991)

Celebration for orchestra is the opening track on the first instalment of Chandos’s new cycle of orchestral music by Richard Rodney Bennett. It is a splendidly vibrant, up-tempo piece, that has many nods to William Walton in its rhythmic and melodic interest.

The work was commissioned by the Maryland Symphony Orchestra in 1991 as a ‘celebration of its 10th Anniversary Season.’ It is dedicated to ‘the founders, subscribers, and musicians’ of that institution. The work’s premiere was given at Hagerstown, Maryland on 14 March 1992 with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra founding artistic director Barry Tuckwell conducting.

It is difficult to define the form of this short work. On the one hand it is like a little overture, on the other hand, Richard Bratby (CD liner notes) has described it as ‘a miniature concerto for orchestra, somewhere between a fanfare and a comedy overture in the bustling manner of Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Overture (1956).’ This is immediately apparent from the ‘brassy swagger, soaring melody, and an invigorating, distinctly American rhythmic kick in just over four exuberant and brilliantly scored minutes.’ In addition, the orchestration is a masterclass of variety, interest and exuberance.

The Gramophone (January 2018) reviewer Edward Seckerson notes that ‘First up, Bennett arrives disguised as William Walton …whose wiry string figures and angular syncopations raise the question: is this a tribute or an impersonation…’ Seckerson concludes that ‘either way, it is very knowing and virtuoso, and does exactly what it says in the title.’

Nick Barnard reviewing this CD considered that Richard Rodney Bennett was ‘at his most overtly brilliant in Celebration…This brief work contains all of the Bennett fingerprints of vigorous music with a distinctly jazz-derived harmonic and rhythmic slant. If one was being harsh you might say this is the least individual work presented here but that is just to demonstrate the range of Bennett’s style from abstractly serious, to impressionistic and programmatic. It also shows his particular brilliance at being able to write hugely enjoyable occasional music…it certainly sounds as though the performers here are having a ball!’ (MusicWeb International,1 March 2018) 

Richard Bratby in the CD liner notes, reminds the listener of an interview with the composer in 1988 when he was asked ‘what motivated him to write music.’ Bennett replied that ‘I want to bring some people something beautiful, which will stimulate their imaginations’ and added that ‘I want to give players something which is a joy to play’. In Celebration this aim is amply achieved.

Celebration can be found on Chandos CHSA 5202. Other works on this CD include the Symphony No.3, the Marimba Concerto, the Sinfonietta and Summer Music. John Wilson and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra give an enthusiastic and vibrant performance of this dynamic overture (and the other works in this CD).