Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Notable Musicians: Montague Phillips: Part I

Montague Phillips manages just one paragraph in the current edition of Grove. There is no bibliography or list of works. I found the present pen-portrait of the composer in Part 21 of Music of All Nations: A collection of the World’s Best Music. This included music and essays. This series, which was edited by ‘Sir Henry Wood’ [3] was published during the nineteen twenties however, my copy is not dated.  I located an advert in the Yorkshire Evening Post (3 November 1927) for ‘Part One’ of this fortnightly publication. So the present part is likely to have been issued in August 1928.
I understand that there were 30 parts issued. It is highly likely that Wood’s name was simply an advertising ploy and that the considerable amount of work the publication entailed was done by a team of editors. 
I give no commentary on the text below, which is largely self-explanatory. The contemporary reader is reminded that this was written some 88 years ago and must allow for some views which may seem a little patronising in 2016.

After being at a Promenade Concert several years ago, the late Edouard Colonne, the famous French conductor, wrote: ‘I heard a song with orchestra entitled 'Fidelity.' It is one of the most remarkable and exquisite pages of music I have heard in recent years. I looked at my programme for the name of the author; it was Mr. Montague Phillips. If England has many composers like him, she may well be proud: there is a great musical future in store for her.’
This is a tribute of appreciation addressed by a veteran to a colleague who was then a very young man, and its justification may be found in Mr. Phillips' career. He has written well over a hundred songs which have won great popularity—by reason of their genuine melodiousness and artistic treatment, a popularity which is not confined to the musical amateur (who, perhaps, is not always the best judge of musical worth), but has been confirmed by those who choose them as test pieces for various diplomas and certificates. Mr. Phillips has, moreover, essayed with great success many larger forms of composition, including two pianoforte concertos, a symphonic poem ‘Boadicea,’ a symphony in C minor, an ‘Heroic’ overture, and ‘The Rebel Maid,’ a light opera produced at the Empire Theatre in 1921. He has lately completed another opera, which awaits production.
One so often hears sneers at the ‘organ loft,’ that it may surprise some people to learn that Mr. Phillips was born and bred in that particular ‘ briar patch,’ as Brer Rabbit used to say. In other words, he began as a choir boy, he was trained as a church organist, and he holds the diploma of Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists. This goes to show that what is in a man counts, rather than environment. There is no trace of ecclesiastical bondage in all Mr. Phillips' output.
‘I was born at Tottenham,’ he said to me, ‘and was quite young when I began to show a liking for music. I was first attracted by the piano, and was sent to the late Dr. William Lemare for lessons, but it was soon discovered that I possessed a good treble voice. Solo boys are always in request, and besides holding a permanent appointment as such at St. Botolph's, Bishopsgate, E.C., I was engaged to sing at the London Church Choir Association Festivals, as well as at many concerts, for oratorios, etc. It is rather curious that my very first engagement should have been at Esher, which was in after years to be my home. In the year 1900 I carried off the prize for boys' solo singing at the Stratford Musical Festival, and two years later repeated my success, not as a singer this time, but as an organist.’
As Mr. Phillips, though ready to express opinions about musical matters, displays reluctance to talk about his own doings, let the chronicler continue the story of his early career. At the age of seventeen he won the Henry Smart Scholarship for organ playing and composition at the Royal Academy of Music. He was also appointed as organist and choirmaster at Theydon Bois, Essex. This post he held for a couple of years, when he accepted a similar position at Christ Church, Wanstead.
Working hard at the Academy, Montague Phillips had his reward in several notable successes, winning the Battison Haynes Prize for the composition of a Prelude and Fugue for organ, and gaining the Macfarren Scholarship in composition. Acting on the advice of Dr. McEwen, he was transferred to the class of Mr. Frederick Corder, who has trained so many of the British composers of to-day. He also won the R.A.M. Club Prize for organ playing and improvisation. In 1905 he composed by request a setting of the Evening Canticles for the Festival of the London Church Choir Association. The following year his first pianoforte concerto, commissioned by the late Mrs. Lewis-Hill, was written, and was produced in 1908 at one of the R.C.M. Patron's Fund Concerts in Queen's Hall, with Miss Irene Scharrer as the pianist.
After four years at Christ Church, Wanstead, I resigned,’ he says, ‘ in order to take a post at Esher Parish Church, where I played until a comparatively short time ago, when I gave up Sunday duties, though I still play occasionally when my successor is away. Esher also became my permanent home. The late Duchess of Albany was a near neighbour of ours and often honoured us by an invitation to Claremont. She was extremely keen on music, and was often kind enough to assist my wife with the German of her songs. In the early part of 1914 she busied herself arranging a tour for my wife and myself to visit the principal courts in Germany, but unfortunately this project was rendered abortive by the outbreak of war. That was not all. In anticipation of the tour, I had previously sent over to Germany the full score of my symphony in C minor. My score was lost in the general turmoil, and I have never set eyes upon it since. Possibly it may turn up some day, though I have little hope of its doing so. Fortunately, I have the orchestra parts, and so could reconstruct the score from them. I may perhaps do so one of these days, but it is a fearful labour!’ 
To be continued…

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Herbert Howells: Saraband (For the Morning of Easter)

The Saraband (For the Morning of Easter) was composed during May 1940.  It was issued in 1953 as the second number in ‘Six Pieces for Organ’. The entire volume was dedicated to the organist and composer Herbert Sumsion.  Howells wrote that ‘In 1940, after a severe illness, I found a new way of making use of convalescence. In those days and in that time, in sheer affection and admiration of Dr Herbert Sumsion of Gloucester, I wrote this set of six pieces, ending with a Paean.’ (Palmer, Herbert Howells: A Celebration, London, Thames Publishing, 1996)
Peter Hardwick in his study of British Organ Music of the Twentieth Century (Scarecrow Press, 2002) notes that the Saraband (For the Morning of Easter) is written in the form of a ‘Baroque stylized saraband.’ He explains that all the ‘ancient dance’s characteristics are present’ including the slow majestic triple metre, accented first and second beats, regular four bar phrases and a melody characterised by considerable written out ornamentation. Unlike traditional sarabands, this is written in ternary form (ABA) rather than the more traditional binary (AB). The chords are dense, giving the work a power and strength.

William Sutton (Musical Times, February 1971) has described the Saraband (For the Morning of Easter) as deserving special mention: it is a ‘work of compelling intensity and power, an ecstatic vision of the first Easter Morning.’ He notes the ‘virile discords resolving in chains on to orthodox and judiciously placed triads.’
Christopher Palmer (Herbert Howells, Novello, 1978) notes that ‘it is typical of Howells that he should have elected to express the awe and wonderment of the Resurrection within the confines of a stylised dance-form – a distancing element, certainly, but in this case ‘’tis distance lends enchantment.’ 
The review of the sheet music (Notes, December 1954) considers that these Six Pieces can be classified as 'Anglicized Impressionism' (perhaps nodding too Durufle’s work in France) and considered that they represent ‘contemporary English organ music at its conservative best.’
The ‘Six Pieces’ include Preludio ‘Sine Nomine’; Saraband (For the Morning of Easter); Master Tallis’s Testament; Fugue, Chorale an Epilogue; Saraband (In Modo Elegiaco) and Paean. These can be used individually or as a series, played in the order presented by the composer. There is sufficient unity and variety in these pieces to allow them to be heard at a sitting.

An excellent recording of Herbert Howells: Saraband (For the Morning of Easter) can be heard on Priory PRCD 524, with Graham Barber playing the organ at Hereford Cathedral.  There are a couple of recordings uploaded to YouTube, including one from Smolny Cathedral St Peteresbug played by Mikhail Mishchenko.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Philip Wood: Sonnets, Airs & Dances: Songs and Chamber Music

I began my exploration of this new disc of music by Philip Wood with the short ‘Lonsdale Dance’ written for unaccompanied descant recorder. The work carries a subtitle ‘Champêtre’ which implies that a pastoral mood was intended. The ‘Lonsdale’ in question is located in Westmorland and was once described by John Ruskin as having ‘moorland hill, and sweet river and English forest foliage…at their best.’  The Dance, which is conceived in two contrasting sections was written to explore the resources of the recorder and display John Turner’s virtuosity: it succeeds on both counts. Lonsdale Dance’ is dedicated to Lady Caroline, the then Dowager Countess of Lonsdale.

I moved on to what is probably the most significant piece on this CD, the Concertino for recorder and string quartet.  This work was composed some 15 years ago for the present players and was first performed at a Royal Northern College of Music concert in that year. The Concertino is in two movements (I could have wished for a third) and presents some involved passage work for soloist and quartet. The opening movement is dark and lugubrious (muted strings) with reflective playing on the treble recorder. However, the second movement livens things up considerably with a change of instrument to descant recorder with spiky, aggressive music from all the players. There are some interesting tonal effects from the soloist. Altogether an enjoyable and approachable work that deserves a place in the concerted recorder repertoire.

I then chose to explore the ‘Five Spring Songs’ which are settings of a wide range of poets including W.E. Henley, Christina Rossetti, Henry Vaughan, George Peele and ‘Anon.’ These were written in 2011 as a birthday gift for Wood’s composer and friend Nicolas Marshall.  The songs were designed to reflect ‘nature, birdsong and youth’ rather than ‘age and advancing years.’ I enjoyed the interesting combination of recorder, cello and harpsichord supporting the stunning soprano voice of Lesley-Jane Rogers. These songs have no sense of ‘antique parody’, in fact, this particular ensemble has the effect of making them timeless. The choice of poems is imaginative: I especially relished Peele’s ‘When as the Eye,’ with its ‘strawberries swimming in the cream…’ made famous in Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony.

The Partita for recorder and cello is a ‘pick and mix of character pieces’ composed once again for John Turner. The key elements of this suite are the evocations of dawn (Aubade) and nightfall (Nocturne). The one is ‘full of noises, strange sounds as the birds perform their reveille and the other is dark and introverted. The birds in this movement have something of the night about them. Other pieces include a short, doleful chaconne, a dynamic capriccio and a rumbustious ‘moto perpetuo.’ The Partita was premiered in 2003 as a part of the Salford Mayfest.

The Two Motets are written for solo soprano with no accompaniment. They are settings of the well-loved liturgical texts ‘Ave verum corpus’ and ‘Ave Maria’. There is a simplicity here that is both moving and inspirational. They are beautifully sung by Lesley-Ann Rogers.

The CD opens with what is the most ‘substantial’ of the three songs cycles presented here. ‘Sonnets, Airs and Dances’ has six movements and is given the form of a masque or renaissance cantata. The singer is accompanied by the recorder and harpsichord.  The verses chosen are diverse and include John Donne’s frankly depressing ‘O my blacke Soule’ which is presented in declamatory style with no accompaniment. This is followed by a quirky little forlane for instrumentalists alone.  The mood is lightened with the anonymous ‘Come away, sweet Love’ for all the soloists and ‘Now is my Chloris fresh as May.’  Once again, the mood changes with a charming ‘Sarabande’ for recorder and harpsichord.  The ‘cantata’ closes with John Keats’ mediation on sleep, ‘O soft embalmer of the still midnight.’  This is an important work that defies stylistic categorisation: it is ageless in its impact.

The Aria, Recitative and Rondo for countertenor and cello was expressly written for the fine counter tenor James Bowman. Wood writes that they are ‘in essence three love songs and explore youthful love, sensual love and the more bawdy aspects of lust, respectively.’ It includes poems by Arnault Daniel, a 13th century troubadour, a ‘Riddle’ by Adrian Mitchell and a bit of macaronic Latin by John O’ Keefe. This significant work is ideally suited to Bowman’s fabulous voice.

A word about the composer. Philip Wood was born near Leeds in 1972 and studied Music and Drama in Northampton and later at Leeds University. In 2003, he was awarded a PhD in composition. Over the years he has received many commissions for a wide variety of works including orchestral, choral, chamber and instrumental.  Influences include ‘a passion for British music’ with ‘mainstream’ figures such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, William Walton and Malcolm Arnold. He also owes a debt to ‘lesser known names’ including William Alwyn, Bernard Stevens, Edmund Rubbra, Alan Rawsthorne and Arnold Cooke. A dominant influence on his word setting is Benjamin Britten.

The liner notes written by the composer are necessary reading and include details of each work. Texts have been included of all the vocal numbers. Brief notices are given of the musicians and Wood himself.
The sound quality of this Divine Art disc is clear and vibrant. The playing by all the performers is, as would be expected, absolutely splendid.  Special commendation goes to John Turner’s superb recorder playing and Lesley-Jane Rogers’s delightful soprano voice. 

Philip Wood indicates that this album is a ‘cross section of songs and chamber music written over an eleven year period.’ Most of these pieces have been written as a ‘special gift’ or a ‘gesture of thanks or goodwill.’ Perhaps the dominant figure in all this is ‘John Turner, [who] as well as his enthusiasm, encouragement and passion for music-making…has made this recording possible.’  It is a sentiment with which all listeners will readily concur. 

Track Listing: 
Sonnets, Airs & Dances: Songs and Chamber Music
Philip WOOD (b.1972)
Sonnets, Airs and Dances (2005)
Five Spring Songs (2011)
Two Motets (2004)
Partita for recorder and cello (2000)
Aria, Recitative and Rondo for countertenor and cello (c.2003)
A Lonsdale Dance (2007)
Concertino for recorder and string quartet (2000)
Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano), John Turner (recorder), Harvey Davies (harpsichord), Heather Bills (cello), James Bowman (counter-tenor), Jonathan Price (cello), Manchester Camerata Ensemble: Richard Howarth (violin), Julia Hanson (violin),Tom Dunn (viola), Jonathan Price (cello)
DIVINE ART dda 25131 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The Feeney Trust Music Commissions: 1955-1975

The Feeney Trust was established in 1907 after the death of John Feeney (1839-1905). Feeney was the son of the founder of the Birmingham Post newspaper. He worked for the newspaper from 1863 and latterly became its proprietor. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the arts as well as having a scholarly understanding of them.
Feeney was a philanthropist, contributing to local hospitals, the University and other charitable causes. The Trust was to be used for the ‘benefit of public charities in Birmingham or for the promotion of art in the city or the acquisition of open spaces in or near the city…’

Since 1955, when it was decided that music fell into their scope, the Feeney Trust has been responsible for commissioning a wide variety of new music for Birmingham based musicians. The first commission was Arthur Bliss’ much undervalued Meditations on a Theme of John Blow. Over the past 60 years many well-known composers, including Michael Tippett, Richard Rodney Bennet, John Tavener and Judith Weir have contributed important works. Alas, few of them seem to have become established works in the orchestral repertoire. Some have gained a toehold, a number have been recorded: others have fallen by the wayside. Maybe that is the way things should be. However, there are many worthy pieces of music included in this list that demand our appreciation.

I have listed the works commissioned by the Feeney Trust for the first 20 years. It is instructive to see how the various works have fared. I have indicated which works have been commercially recorded.  This is as far as I can discover. There may be other private or commercial releases in existence. It is interesting, if somewhat disappointing to note that a number of pieces are represented by a single recording.  

1955 Arthur Bliss: Meditations on a Theme by John Blow [5 recordings]
1956 Michael Tippett: Piano Concerto [5 recordings]
1957 Peter Wishart: Concerto for Orchestra
1957 Edmund Rubbra: Symphony No.7 [2 recordings]
1959 Lennox Berkeley: Symphony No.2 [2 recordings]
1959 Alan Rawsthorne: Symphony No.2 [3 recordings]
1961 Alun Hoddinott: Violin Concerto
1961 John Gardner: Herrick Cantata
1962 Andrzej Panufnik: Piano Concerto [4 recordings]
1962 Humphrey Searle: Symphony No.4 [1 recording]
1963 Robert Simpson: Symphony No.3 [4 recordings]
1963 Arthur Bliss: Mary of Magdela
1963 Elizabeth Maconchy: Serenata Concertante for violin and orchestra [1 recording]
1964 John Gardner: The Noble Heart
1965 Don Banks: Divisions for orchestra
1965 Gordon Crosse: Sinfonia Concertante (revised as Symphony No.1, 1976)
1967 Peter Racine Fricker: Symphony No.4
1968 Thea Musgrave: Concerto for Orchestra [1 recording]
1969 Richard Rodney Bennett: Piano Concerto [1 recording]
1970 Richard Henninger: Catena
1970 Kenneth Leighton:  Piano Concerto No.3 [1 recording]
1970 Peter Dickinson: Satie Transformations [1 recording]
1971 John McCabe: Symphony No.2 [1 recording]
1971 Humphrey Searle: Labyrinth
1974 Anthony Gilbert: Ghost and Dream Dancing
1975 Nicola le Fanu: Columbia Falls

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Mendelssohn in Birmingham: Volume 4

For a long period it had been a rule of thumb that Mendelssohn’s’ music had suffered a steady decline from the early masterpieces such as the Octet, and the Overtures to the Midsummer’s Night Dream and the Hebrides. If ever a work proved the critics wrong it is the Concerto in E minor, op.64 for Violin and Orchestra.
The Concerto was completed in 1844, three years before the composer’s death, and was first performed in Leipzig by Ferdinand David with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in the following year. Interestingly the Danish composer Niels Gade conducted the concert. David wrote to the composer that ‘[the concerto] fulfils all the demands one can make of a violin concerto…violinists cannot be too grateful to you for this gift.’ It has remained a favourite with audiences ever since. The secret of the work’s popularity is its vigour, the serenity of the slow movement and technical display which avoids sheer virtuosity simply for the sake of being difficult. Joachim once wrote that the Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's’.
At present (January 2016) there are some 204 recordings of Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E minor, op.64 for Violin and Orchestra listed in the Arkiv catalogue. Any attempt by this (or any) reviewer to provide a detailed comparison between versions of the concerto will be doomed to failure. From a personal point of view, I was introduced to this work by way of an old vinyl version of Isaac Stern and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, released in 1959. Since that time, I have enjoyed recordings and concerts of the concerto by Yehudi Menuhin, Jascha Heifetz, Nigel Kennedy and Nicola Benedetti and others.
Jennifer Pike’s interpretation is dramatic, passionate and always nuanced. The violin tone is well-rounded and perfectly balances vivacity with deep intimacy in the progress of the concerto. It impressed and moved me. This performance is certain to become one of the great standard recordings.

Another work that defied Mendelssohn’s critics is the incidental music to William Shakespeare’s fairy play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From the first note of the Overture to the last of the ‘Finale’, this music matches the wit, magic, frivolity and subtlety of the play. In 1842 Mendelssohn was commissioned to write the incidental music for Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel’s German translation of the play. Not unnaturally, Mendelssohn recycled the early overture written in 1826 when he was only 17 years old. He used this as the inspiration for the following 13 numbers.  Six of these are simply ‘melodramatic’ mood pieces designed to underscore spoken texts: they are omitted from this recording. It leaves the eight sections recorded here. This includes the hackneyed, but well-written ‘Wedding March’, the ‘Scherzo’, ‘The Dance of the Clowns’, and the ‘Nocturne’. For me it is always a joy and a pleasure to hear this music. In the present recording all the dreamlike atmosphere is present and correct. I was particularly impressed with the beautiful Song ‘Ye Spotted Snakes’ with its Sullivan-esque chorus.  

This masterly performance of these two essential orchestral works were recorded in the iconic Town Hall in Birmingham, where masterpieces such as Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and Mendelssohn’s Elijah received their premieres: Arthur Sullivan, The Beatles and Bob Dylan have graced the venue with their artistry.  The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is conducted here by their guest conductor Edward Gardner.

Jennifer Pike needs little introduction to enthusiasts of the violin. Her career was launched 13 years ago in Lichfield Cathedral with the present concerto. Last year (2015) she made her debut at the Carnegie Hall, New York with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending: she received a standing ovation. For Chandos, Pike has recorded a wide range of music including Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, Sonatas by Franck, Debussy, Ravel, Brahms and Schumann as well as concerted music by Miklós Rózsa and Ernest Chausson. She has, in all cases, received excellent reviews. 

The present volume has dispensed with the pen sketch by the composer featured in the last three issues, which is a pity. The liner notes, (in English, German and French) by Bayan Northcott are extensive and discuss the works in detail: the booklet also includes Gerald Larner’s essay-length article on Mendelssohn and his relationship with Birmingham. The usual biographical details of the soloists, the orchestra, chorus and conductor are also given. 

This latest release in Chandos’ ‘Mendelssohn in Birmingham’ series is, as noted, the fourth volume in the series. So far, it has featured all the Symphonies and a good selection of the overtures. The present CD features one of the best known and loved violin concertos in the repertoire and the incidental music to Shakespeare’s magical play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I thoroughly enjoyed everything about this disc: the outstanding playing of soloist and the orchestra, the superb quality of the recording and the first-rate documentation provided in the liner notes. 

Track Listing:
Concerto in E minor, op.64 for Violin and Orchestra (1838-45)
Incidental Music to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, op.61 (1826/1842)
Rhian Lois (soprano), Keri Fuge (soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, (op.61), Jennifer Pike (violin) (op.64) City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner,

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

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Festival of British Music, 1915: Part VI A Review by Peter Warlock

My last post on the 1915 ‘Festival of British Music’ features a short review of the final (third) concert [15 May 2015] by the composer, critic and bon viveur Philip Heseltine, better known as Peter Warlock.  Heseltine only held the post of Daily Mail music critic for four months and contributed around 30 notices of concert and recitals. No commentary on this review is necessary, save to point out the Heseltine clearly had a more positive view of Cyril Scott’s Piano Concerto the ‘Capriccio’ in Musical Opinion.

‘The Festival of British Music organised by Mr. Thomas Beecham and Mr. Mlynarski was brought to a close at [the] Queen’s Hall on Saturday afternoon with a programme in which interest centred almost entirely in two numbers. The first of these was Cyril Scott’s new Pianoforte Concerto, which received its first performance.
It is a work constructed, like much of the later Scriabin, upon a definite and peculiar harmonic scheme which yields effects of decorative rather than emotional value. Though the second movement is charged with an intensity of poetic feeling which raises it far above the rest of the work. The strange haunting beauty of this section would be more telling in isolation from the other two movements, especially since the relation between piano and orchestra is here more satisfactory than elsewhere. Taken as a whole, the work may be described as a pianist’s concerto, in that the piano is definitely the dominant instrument throughout.

The other work was an orchestral fantasy, ‘In the Faery Hills’ by Arnold Bax. It is one of the most original and poetic orchestral compositions penned by a native composer, and, moreover, one which completely fulfilled the object of the festival, namely, to give the stranger a good impression of British music.’ P.H. Daily Mail (17 May 1915)

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Dancing in Daylight: Contemporary Piano Trios from Ireland

John Buckley’s Piano Trio was composed in 2013 for the present ensemble. The inspiration for the piece was derived from ‘mechanical devices both visual and aural.’ The trio is written in three movements. The first, ‘Shadows and Echoes’, reflects ‘flickering images of pre-film animation devices such as the zoetrope.’  The second is based on the once popular ‘kaleidoscope’ with its constantly shifting patterns of light and hence sound. Mechanical music infuses the finale, with a consideration of the ‘turbulent emotional lives’ of the two figures in the music box.  It is a fine work that can be shorn of its ‘programme’ and enjoyed equally well as a piece of absolute music.

I was seriously impressed by Fergus Johnson’s eclectic Piano Trio. The notes state that the entire piece (three movements) springs from a four-note motif: it is how the composer develops this material that is remarkable. The first movement ‘stutters’ along with some deep growls in the piano and some ‘exploratory’ string playing. A tango follows which crosses over into boogie-woogie: a sort of Stravinsky meets Max Jaffa, Little Richard and Albeniz. Riveting stuff. The mood changes in the final ‘Threnody’ which is truly a song of mourning and is beautiful in its soundscape. It is in huge contrast to the wayward middle movement.

The second of Rhona Clarke’s two (to date) Piano Trio’s was composed back in 2001 and revised in 2015.  This piece is in two short-ish movements. The first is deeply-felt and offers a ‘romantic dialogue’ between the violin and cello. The piano keeps up a gentle tread. The second movement is influenced by Bartok and uses fugal constructions to exposit its forceful argument. There is a little relaxation halfway through, where Clarke recalls some moments from the gorgeous opening movement. It is a satisfying composition that balances romance, motor rhythms and neo-classicism.

Seóirse Bodley is the most senior composer on this CD. He was born in 1933 and has produced a wide range of compositions including five symphonies. His Piano Trio ‘Dancing in Daylight’ was written in 2014 and is dedicated to fellow composer John Buckley.  Bodley writes that the concept of the Trio is ‘to indicate a dance character, as if the dance took place in the open in broad daylight…Everything that happens at the dance is obvious to the onlookers: nothing is concealed.’ 
There are traditional Irish musical features in this work, but this is not a ‘folk’ trio as such. The elements have been synthesised into the composer’s amenable style. Especially attractive is the solo violin melody at the start of the finale, for which the ‘fiddler’ Darragh Morgan has devised his own ornamentation in Irish folk music style. It is a memorable moment.

The liner notes by John Buckley and the composers are excellent. After a brief overview of the ‘piano trio’ genre in Ireland, each work is given a programme note.  Bios of the composers and a resume of The Fidelio Trio, which includes photographs, concludes this model booklet.
I was a little disappointed with the duration of the CD. At 52 minutes I would have thought another Trio could have been squeezed in, possibly Rhona Clarke’s first example? 

The Fidelio Trio was formed during 1995 and is made up of London-based Irish musicians. Their repertoire is extensive and diverse, ranging from the established classics to premieres of many contemporary composers.  CD performances include music by Arnold Schoenberg, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Michael Nyman and Judith Weir.
Their playing of these ‘new’ works on this present CD is remarkable, and displays considerable imagination and virtuosity. 

I enjoyed this record of what I take to be premiere recordings. Each work is characterised by approachability, interest and a deep sense of musicality. Irish traditional music is not ignored, but is not made into pastiche. One of the best modern chamber music records I have heard in a long time.

Track Listings: 
John BUCKLEY (b.1951) Piano Trio (2013)
Fergus JOHNSTON (b.1959) Piano Trio (2011)
Rhona CLARKE (b.1958) Piano Trio no.2 (2001, rev.2015)
Seóirse BODLEY (b.1933) Piano Trio ‘Dancing in Daylight’ (2014)
The Fidelio Trio: Darragh Morgan (violin) Adi Tal (cello) Mary Dullea (piano)

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Francis Chagrin Symphony No. 1: Review in The Times.

Further to my post presenting the composer’s thoughts on his Symphony No. 1, I post a major review of the work given in The Times (17 March 1966). The work, performed at the St Pancras Festival, was part of an important concert given at the Odeon Swiss Cottage which featured not only Chagrin’s Symphony, but also Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique along with Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto.  Although the work was given its public premiere on 15 March 1956, it had been given a studio broadcast in 15 November 1963 with Stanford Robinson conducting the BBC Norther Orchestra. It is good to know that the Odeon at Swiss Cottage is still extant.

‘Francis Chagrin’s Symphony, which was broadcast about three years ago, [15 November 1963] received its first public performance at the Odeon, Swiss Cottage, on Tuesday, with the composer conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Chagrin is the most versatile of musicians and as conductor of the well-known ensemble that bears his name, he is intimately acquainted with a large variety of different styles. But as a composer he does not appear to have a personality strong enough to withstand these influences, which may explain why his symphony lacks the stamp of a marked individuality, striking the listener as the work of a typical eclectic. Indeed, there were recognizable echoes in it of Mahler, Berg and Shostakovich.
Nevertheless, on second hearing the work seems to gain in stature. Above all, it is a true symphony both in its material and its elaboration – in other words, it grows organically and cogently. Its four movements are concise in form and their argument interesting and well sustained. While it seems to spring from a central mood of bitterness and disharmony its contrasting facets are effectively mirrored in the individual movements. All in all, a thoughtful and well-wrought work which despite its lack if an original language would repay further hearings.

The rest of the programme, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique and the Piano Concerto by Khachaturian, was conducted by the young Israeli, Mr. Moshe Atzmon. His account of the symphony was one of the most vital we have heard in recent time – taut in rhythm, with a compelling sense of drama and an ear for Tchaikovsky’s sensuous lyrical phrase. The orchestra was on top of its form, which could not be said of its playing of the Chagrin.
Miss Pnina Salzman, the soloist in the Khachaturian work, brought to the work an accomplished technique and musically attempted to make the most of what is, with the exception of the Andante, rather blatant music.’ 
The Times 17 March 1966. 

Monday, 7 March 2016

Festival of British Music, May 1915. (Part V)

The third and final concert of the Festival of British Music was held at the Queen’s Hall, Langham Place on Saturday May 15 1915 at 3 pm. The programme included:
Frederic Austin: Spring Rhapsody
Cyril Scott: Piano Concerto (No.1) (first performance) Cyril Scott (piano)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphonic Impression: In the Fen Country
Edward Elgar: Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and string orchestra.
Arnold Bax: In the Faery Hills
Edward Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance No.3
Songs: ‘A Celtic Lullaby’, Arnold Bax & ‘The Wood’s Aglow’, John Blackwood McEwen Madame Kirkby Lunn (contralto)
The London Symphony Orchestra, The London Choral Society. Conductors: Emil Mlynarski and Thomas Beecham.

Contemporary reviewer, ‘Capriccio’, in Musical Opinion wrote:
‘At the third concert a novelty was thrust upon an unsuspecting and easy going public, to wit, a Piano Concerto by Cyril Scott. That work is entirely innocent of tonality, of development, of consistent part-writing and coherent musical though is possibly not surprising; for Mr Scott’s previous practice has accustomed his admirers and others to such peculiarities. The work, however, is pervaded by a complete self-consciousness; indeed, it seemed as though the composer (who played the solo part) were simply concerned with tickling himself in public. A few little dribbling figures are reiterated ad nauseum and throughout the entire work there is no evidence of melodic invention or broad outline of phrase.
Other works performed were Frederic Austin’s Spring Rhapsody, Vaughan Williams’s In the Fen Country, Elgar’s seldom heard Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and strings – as telling and brilliant a piece of writing for the instruments as one could well desire – and Arnold Bax’s somewhat precious fantasy ‘In the Faery Hills.’’
‘Capriccio’ Concert Notices: Things Seen and Heard. Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review (June 1915)

Looking back 101 years it is clear that this concert contributed two works which have become an important part of the established repertoire. Few listeners in 2016 will need to be appraised of Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and string orchestra. There are currently some 43 versions of this work available on CD which are cited in the Arkiv catalogue.  In like manner Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphonic Impression: In the Fen Country has established itself as a reasonably popular piece with those who enjoy the pastoral idiom.  On the other hand, everyone knowns Elgar’s P&C March No. 1 ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ with 82 versions listed: almost as popular is No.4 with 29 CDs available. Strangely, No.3 is hardly ever heard: likewise No.2. They are worth a listen now and again, but in truth do not have quite the same charisma as the well-known pair.
It is good that Frederic Austin’s imaginative score ‘Rhapsody: Spring’ has been recorded. It was originally released on the Classico label, but subsequently reissued by Dutton Epoch (CDLX 7288).  For a work of this quality it, it is amazing that it is represented by this single performance. Arnold Bax has established himself with enthusiasts of British music and many of his pieces are available on CD, however he is not regularly heard in the concert hall. The magical tone poem In the Faery Hills has been recorded by Vernon Handley, David Lloyd-Jones and Bryden Thompson. (Chandos CHAN 10362, NAXOS 8.553525 & Chandos CLASSICS CHAN 10157.)
Cyril Scott’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which is panned by ‘Capriccio’ in the above review has been recorded twice. In 1975 it appeared on Lyrita (SRCS 81: SRCD.251) played by John Ogdon with Bernard Hermann conducting the LPO and more recently (2006) by Howard Shelley with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Martyn Brabbins on Chandos (CHAN 10376). This is a work that I feel I ought to like, but have never quite managed to come to terms with. It is a concerto I need to revisit and write about. 

The song ‘A Celtic Lullaby’ (William Sharp) composed by Bax clings to the repertoire, whereas McEwen’s ‘The Wood’s Aglow’, one of Three Songs (1905) appears to have sunk without trace. 

Friday, 4 March 2016

Francis Chagrin: Symphony No. 1 (1966)

Earlier this year, I was looking at ‘symphonic anniversaries’ and discovered that Francis Chagrin’s Symphony No.1 was first heard in its present form on 15th March 1966 – 50 years ago.  I also found a sketch of the work penned by the composer in that months Musical Events journal. I have presented this below.  
I was therefore delighted to discover Naxos has released (February 2016) Francis Chagrin’s Symphonies No.1 & 2, played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins.  I will give a brief biography of Chagrin in a future post as well as some reviews of the First Symphony.

From Musical Events:
‘I started my ‘Symphony’ almost exactly twenty years ago, or at least my first sketches date from May 1946. I am not a fast worker and need – like many of my colleagues – a deadline, a strong inventive to force me to ‘get on with it.’ The incentive was very strong, but the luxury of second and third thoughts slowed the work down in favour of immediate tasks:  commissions for films which had to be delivered urgently; or engagements to conduct concerts and visiting ballet companies; or finishing other works that did not overawe me quite so much as the ‘Symphony.’

I rarely make a master plan or a blue print and then work at it systematically. I allow the musical material to have its say. Often I feel that anything I write is there, in its final form (as indeed it is in the womb of time) and all I have to do is to bring the future back into the actual present, reverse the process and feel my way to the next step.

Without knowing yet all the details, I knew that the work was going to have two main characteristics:-
1. Each movement would have within itself a section in completely contrasting tempo: The first movement, apart from a short ‘Largo’ introduction is an ‘Allegro’ almost throughout, except for a passage that is ‘Andantino’ and illuminates a more lyrical aspect of one of the themes.
Similarly, the second movement, a ‘Largo’, has a sudden burst into a short ‘Allegro’ and then resumes its slow pace. The same happens with the third and fourth movements. In addition to the inner contrasts within each movement, the contrasts between movements is as marked as possible. The first is violent and passionate with echoes of the war; the second is slow and very lyrical and singing; the third is a ‘Presto scherzando’ that has a reflexive section and also a quasi-Viennese Waltz passage, brutally interrupted by the discordant brass: maybe the war was not yet far enough away and did not allow too long for frivolities.

2. Although each movement has its own sets of themes, the first theme of the ‘Allegro’ (first movement) appears in each of the subsequent movements in all sorts of guises, like a friend looking in. Once it is a violin solo, another time it is developed as a counterpoint either in the brass or brasses. It makes the whole work hang together without imposing its identity.
The Introduction (Largo) apart from presenting a harmonic basis for most of the work, is developed in the last movement, as are other elements.
After my first and second movements were completed in 1955, the work was interrupted further by a heart attack. But life started again and the third movement was completed in January 1959 and the last in December 1959.

Since then I have revised the work twice; the final version was finished in December 1965. This is the version that I shall be conducting on the 15th March [1966] with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Swiss Cottage Odeon during the St. Pancras Arts Festival.
The ‘Symphony’ is dedicated to Jo Leonard, who has given me much encouragement, and to Lawrence Leonard, who played the first version through with the Morley College Orchestra.’
Francis Chagrin Musical Events March 1966

Appended to this edition of Musical Events was a list of concert works by Chagrin. These included:
Nocturne for orchestra (1956)
Prelude and Fugue for orchestra (1957)
Rumanian Fantasy for harmonica (or violin) and orchestra (c.1956)
Suite No.1: Toccata, fughetta and finale. (1957)
Elegy for string quartet (or string orchestra) (1956)
This material was available from the Mills Music Ltd rental library based in Denmark Street in London. 

Let us hope that Naxos or perhaps Dutton Epoch may be persuaded to record some more of Francis Chagrin’s music. 

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Two Organ Preludes, founded on Welsh folksongs

St David of Wales
Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote few works for the organ - or piano for that matter. The longest and most impressive is the Prelude and Fugue in C minor (1921). For most listeners and organists it is his Prelude on ‘Rhosymedre’ which is most popular and best known: it was the second of his ‘Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymns’ (1920). This is one of the loveliest pieces of English organ music in the repertoire.

The most important recent survey of RVW s original organ music is Hugh Benham’s major essay in the RVW Society Journal (Issue 55 October 2012).  I acknowledge his work in my consideration of the Two Organ Preludes founded on Welsh Folksongs.

In 1956 Vaughan Williams turned to Welsh song once again with his ‘Two Organ Preludes founded on Welsh Folk Songs’. They carry no dedication and there is no suggestion as to their purpose, if there was one. The tunes used are secular rather than liturgical, although as Benham points, out they can be used as voluntaries in church and cathedral.
The two pieces are contrasted. There is a simplicity about the ‘Romanza ‘The White Rock’’ that is both pastoral and reflective.  The tune is based on ‘David of the White Rock’ (Dafydd y Garreg Wen) and may have been composed by the 18th century harpist David Owen. After a short introduction, the tune is first heard ‘cantabile’ played with the right hand. It is then repeated in the tenor register before the work comes to a gentle conclusion.

The Toccata ‘St David’s Day’ is quite a restrained little example of the genre. The melody is based on the eponymous tune printed in The Celtic Song Book, ed. A.P. Graves (London, Ernest Benn, 1928) and is an eighteenth century tune. RVW has utilised the last part of the original melody which is repeated in various transpositions and finally presented in an augmented version. The piece concludes with a unison statement of this theme. Benham believes that this toccata was ‘composed quickly’ and not ‘worked at intensely’. Generally, he considers that these Two Preludes ‘are of less musical interest than the earlier set [‘Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymns’].

Peter Hardwick in his conspectus of British Organ Music of the Twentieth Century (Oxford, Scarecrow Press, 2003) considers that these two preludes exhibit RVWs ‘wholesome, good-natured, pastoral manner.’  The Romanza ‘returns to the tonal, slightly tart, flowing, transparent contrapuntal style of the earlier sunny ‘Rhosymedre’ setting.’ On the other hand, both Preludes are bedevilled with ‘the danger of the myriad short sections accompanied by modulations and [an] inconclusive ending.’ The folk songs are treated with the ‘traditional means of fragmentation, sequences, and canonic passages [and] bold linear counterpoints and rhythmic asymmetries…’

The two organ preludes were published by OUP in that year. In 1964 they were also included in The Vaughan Williams Organ Album. (OUP).
The reviewer of the published sheet music (IK) in Music & Letters (July 1957) begins his comments by suggesting that ‘organists have been wondering when Vaughan Williams's pen would remember them. He perhaps does not love their trade very much, and one fears that these two pieces will be found rather gaunt. For all its asperity, the old Prelude and Fugue in C minor gave us congenial fistfuls of sound.’

In 1996 the ‘Two Preludes’ were recorded by Christopher Nickol on the organ of the Caird Hall in Dundee. They were released by Priory (PRCD 537) on an album of the ‘complete’ organ works by RVW and Frank Bridge.
MR (Marc Rochester)  reviewing Nickol’s recording in The Gramophone (December 1996) writes that RVW ‘….there is a lot of energy in the Toccata (‘St David’s Day’)…but after chasing its tail round and round a few times he abandons the task long before the music reaches the two minute mark.’ Mark D. Henegar, in the RVW Society Journal (No.7 October 1996) reviewing the same recording recognises that these Two Preludes are not as well-known as the ‘Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymns’, ‘but are no less beautiful, especially the Romanza.’ He considers that ‘the Toccata is a more accessible piece’ than ‘Hyfrodol’ concluding the earlier work. It is ‘a good example of RVWs jubilatory style’. 

From a personal point of views, although I enjoy these two pieces, they are not RVW at his very best and will never usurp the much more accomplished ‘Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymns.’ Yet, on St. David’s Day 2016 they deserve to be recalled and perhaps given the occasional outing in the organ loft. It is surprising that there appears to only one recording currently available of both preludes.