Whilst reviewing ‘Opening the Door…to the music of Roy Heaton Smith’ I realised that I had not posted my review of this present CD on my blog. It dates from 2007. With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.
When John Turner gave me the ‘heads up’ about this CD, I was confused. I had never heard of a composer called ‘Anthony Burgess’. Yet here was a double-disc CD dedicated to his achievement. I mentioned this to a friend. She said, was he not the Third or Fourth Man? After a deal of head-scratching we resolved that he was probably not Antony Blunt, Guy Burgess nor any of the ‘Cambridge Five’. Then the penny dropped. ‘Clockwork Orange.’ Every teenager of my generation had lied about their age to see this film at the cinemas in the early nineteen-seventies. I did not enjoy it. I still prefer Ealing comedies to Stanley Kubrick’s edgy, dystopian masterpiece. But I recalled Burgess had written the novel on which the film was based. I never read the book. Googling his name I discovered that he was much more than an author. His occupations are listed as ‘novelist, critic, composer, librettist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, travel writer, broadcaster, translator, linguist and educationalist. Enough activity for a dozen lifetimes.
It is with Burgess’ musical activities that this CD is concerned. Burgess’ musical achievements are considerable: he wrote piano music and songs, a massive setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, an operetta ‘Blooms of Dublin’ to a libretto based on James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ as well as three symphonies and chamber music for a variety of instrumental forces. Apparently he composed in excess of 250 works. His first symphony was written when he was only eighteen years old. Yet searching Arkiv reveals only a disc of three ‘Quartets for 4 Guitars’ in their listings. It is currently unavailable. MDT and Crotchet return zero hits.
David Wordsworth has written that Burgess ‘described his music as ‘‘post tonal’ – perhaps neo-romantic’.
Anthony Burgess: The Man and his Music is effectively presented as two recitals – back to back. Each CD contains two compositions by Burgess as well as a wide-ranging selection of pieces by contemporary composers. Casting my eyes down the batting order reveals a number of names that I have never heard of before, a few that are ‘famous’ and one or two that ring a bell.
Beginning with four ‘well-known’ composers, Gordon Crosse’s ‘The Thing with Feathers’ was written in 2010 to celebrate the 80th birthday of the composer Peter Hope. There is a literary connection to Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Hope is the Thing with Feathers’. It is an attractive piece that is full of sunshine and bird calls. I am pleased that Crosse is composing again after an intermission of many years.
Alan Rawsthorne wrote incidental music for the 1961 Stratford-upon-Avon production of Hamlet. The composer wrote sections for recorder and also for wind band. The music has been realised for recorder and piano by David Ellis. I love this music: for me it is the major discovery on this disc.
Herbert Murrill is known to those who haunt the organ loft for his impressive Carillon but remains largely undiscovered for the majority of listeners, in spite of his ‘Country Dances’ for orchestra being recently released on Dutton Epoch. The present ‘Sarabande’ was described as ‘A Christmas Greeting for Pau Casals.’ It was formerly published for violin, viola or cello. Interestingly, John Turner considers that the piece was originally conceived for recorder (an instrument that Murrill played). The ‘violin’ part, when transposed up an octave ‘fits the treble recorder like a glove, being extremely idiomatic as well as in perfect range.’ Whatever the original instrumentation, this piece works well. It is reflective music that has a melody that seems to be something heard a long while ago.
Mátyás Seiber was an émigré from Budapest who arrived in the United Kingdom in 1935. His achievement is inclusive: as well as composing he worked as a teacher and an administrator. Seiber has written a wide range of scores, including the cantata Ulysses, choral settings based on Hungarian folk tunes, a clarinet concertino, film music and and an opera. The present ‘Pastorale’ was originally written in 1941 for recorder and string trio. The work was later expanded for flute and strings and a ‘Burlesque’ was added. The ‘Pastorale’ has a definite feel of folk-music and is written in a rhapsodical style.
The West-Country composer Nicolas Marshall (b.1942) studied with Anthony Milner and Lennox Berkeley. His career so-far has included conducting, lecturing, playing the piano as well as composing. He has produced a varied sonata that features an acerbic opening ‘con moto’ followed by a more introspective ‘elegy’. The finale is technically difficult – with double tonguing and incisive rhythms: this truly ‘fizzes with energy.’ The sonata was premiered in 2005 and was commissioned by The Friends of Fulbourn Hospital. It is not a work that I warm to; nevertheless it is well-balanced and technically effective for both instruments.
Alan Gibbs, born 1932, studied composition with Mátyás Seiber. After National Service he was head of music at Archbishop Tenison’s School in London. He remained there for more than 30 years. He has composed incidental music, an opera, Verity Street, chamber works and incidental music for radio. ‘Blithe Spirit’ refers to Shelley’s poem rather than the wonderful film starring Rex Harrison and the gorgeous Kay Hammond. This short piece was written in 2000. It is a skittish number that uses a variety of technical effects on the recorder – some of which seem harsh. Whether it reflects the poet’s intention is a matter of opinion. Personally I feel it is a little to extrovert to express the thought of ‘Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.’
Wilfred Josephs’ Sonatine, Op.4 was written sixty years ago: it retains its fresh and sunny prospect. The opening movement has ‘cheeky wrong notes’ the ‘elegie’ is a little more thoughtful, whilst the concluding ‘caprice’ is pure fun. It is a piece that I would expect to be in the repertoire of all recorderists. A joy to listen too.
I did not enjoy Barry Ferguson’s ‘The Untamed has a Language but no Word’ –both the title and the music are longwinded. There may be some attractive moments as the work progresses, but it left me a cold as the ‘snow-covered island’ that inspired the piece.
I have yet to come across something by David Dubery that did not impress and satisfy me. The present Sonata is no exception. Although this work is short, almost like a Sonatina, the material demands greater attention. There is a lot of harmonic and textural variety in the opening ‘andantino’. The slow movement is more ‘chilled’ with a blue-note here and there. It has the mood of a ‘pop’ song – and that is no criticism. The finale is inspired. The piano and recorder work together to produce a toccata-like texture. The middle section has a good old fashioned tune that contrasts vividly with the preceding filigree. There is a reprise of the opening theme of the first movement that brings this miniature masterpiece to a conclusion.
David Dubery was born in South Africa in 1948 but has lived in the United Kingdom since he was a teenager. His music includes several orchestral tone poems (I want to hear these) choral works, songs and chamber music.
Roy Heaton Smith is a Manchester lad – having been born in Middleton in 1928. After working as an accounts clerk he studied piano with Noel Walton (William’s brother) and composition with Richard Hall. He subsequently studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music and then the Royal Academy of Music in London. His catalogue includes a Clarinet Concerto. The beautiful ‘Sonatina alla Fantasia’, Op.23 was written when he was still a student in Manchester, but was subsequently dedicated to John Turner. The middle section ‘chorale’ where solo tenor recorder passages are interspersed with rich chord on the piano is particularly successful. The final ‘jig’ is totally effective and uses the descant recorder.
The unfortunate tale of Peter Pope should be a sobering lesson to us all. He was born in 1917 and studied musical composition at the Royal College of Music with John Ireland. In 1939, he won a scholarship which enabled him to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Managing to escape the German invasion of the city he escaped to Britain on a Spanish trawler. After active service with the Royal Army Medical Corp in North Africa he returned to his musical studies. A major event in his career was a performance of his Piano Quintet at the Wigmore Hall in 1948. It was a critical success. Alas, he became ensnared in a fanatical sub- Christian sect that prohibited any involvement ‘with the creative arts.’ It was to be a number of years before he saw sense and escaped their clutches. Unfortunately, his musical career had been halted: he was unable to pick up from where he had left off. This did not stop him composing. According to the liner notes his subsequent works include a Clarinet Concerto, a Concertino for flute and string trio, a number of piano sonatas, various instrumental sonatas as well as a deal of chamber music and songs. Peter Pope died in 1991 with virtually all his music still in manuscript.
The present Recorder Sonatina is the only work by Pope to have been commercially published (at present) and dates from 1939. This short work opens with a delightful ‘allegro molto moderato’ which is a vigorous dialogue between the two soloists. Considerable use is made of canon and fugal devices. The movement closes quietly. The ‘lento molto’ has a lovely melody that is skilfully supported by delicious chords. The finale is a rondo that fairly scampers along. This Sonatina is no ‘lost masterpiece’ and does not imply a ‘misplaced genius’ but based on the skill and craftsmanship that clearly informs this work, I look forward to hearing more of Peter Pope’s music.
The ‘Sonata alla Danza’ is a recent work from the Bristolian composer Dick Blackford. This is a charming study in English ‘pastoralism’ in spite of the fact the each of the movements has a baroque title. The main thrust of this sonata is in the opening ‘bourree.’ The Sarabande is an exploration of landscape. The composer uses both the treble and the bass recorders in this movement. Of all the recorders I like the bass one the best. The finale makes use of every recorder in the book. To me it is all a little too complex –effect for effect’s sake. The piano part carries a huge amount of interest in this work, often outshining the recorder. I hope that John Turner will forgive me if I say that of all the pieces on these two CDs this is the one I should like to hear arranged for flute or oboe and piano.
Christopher Wright’s Sonata was composed in 2007. Wright was born in Ipswich in 1954. He studied composition at the Colchester Institute under Richard Arnell and later Alan Bullard. In 1993 he gave up his post as a schoolmaster and turned to full time composition. He has written a number of concertos (horn, violin, oboe and cello) choral works and a quantity of chamber music including there string quartets. Like most of the pieces on these discs the sonata is immediately approachable. The opening movement is like a dialogue between the recorder and the pianist. It does feel at times a little disjointed and edgy. The middle movement is a long song that is not quite as free-flowing as the liner notes suggest. There is a good sense of balance between the reflective ‘minuet’ and a more aggressive ‘trio’ section. The final movement is also antagonistic. The composer dabbles with ‘jazz-based rhythms’ that do not seem to quite come off. The middle section seems unrelated to what has preceded.
I loved John Sullivan’s short, well crafted ‘Joie de Vivre’ (2009). This work was composed in a tuneful, approachable style more akin to the best of British light music. Sullivan is a Mancunian composer and music teacher, born in 1951: he has composed a wide variety of music including music for wind and brass ensembles, chorus and also for electronic resources.
Finally, I will consider Anthony Burgess’ contribution. His first work on this CD is the Sonatina which was composed around 1990. It was written for his son Andrew who had originally taken up the oboe but later switched to the recorder. The score had a number of lacunae but these were reconstructed by David Beck. The Sonatina is written in three contrasting movements. John Turner suggests that it was written in emulation of Lennox Berkeley’s similar work composed in 1939. Like most of Burgess’ works presented here is written in what might termed a ‘spicy but accessible’ modern style.
The ‘Tre Pezzetti’ was published in 1994. They are neat, concise little numbers. The word ‘pezzetti’ is quite simply Italian for pieces! Nothing too difficult to get to grips with here.
The Sonata No. 1 in C was composed is dated Good Friday 1990 and was duly published in 1992 at the instigation of Andrew Burgess Wilson. The work was conceived for bass recorder, an instrument that the composer suggested had no existing compositions. He deemed that his work was the ‘first of a possible repertoire’: he was to compose another three sonatas for this instrument. Due to tonal balancing issues, John Turner has chosen to play the first and the last movement on a descant recorder with the bass recorder used in the middle ‘largo.’ It is an attractive, lightweight work that has memorable, almost ‘Arnoldian’ tunes. The bass recorder is especially effective.
The final work on this recital is Burgess’ short, undated ‘Siciliano’, written for the tenor recorder and piano: it may have been part of a larger work. John Turner is correct in describing this music as ‘beguiling.’ It brings this two-disc recital to a reflective conclusion.
The liner notes are a model of their kind. The short, but informative introduction about the musical side of Anthony Burgess’ career by David Wordsworth is pitched just right. The remainder of the programme notes are written by John Turner and give detailed information and opinion on each of the works presented. Helpful biographical notes on the composers are also provided.
The sound recording is typically excellent; I did notice one or two distortions on some of the high notes of the soprano recorder.
As usual, with any project that John Turner turns his hand too, this is a major success. From the playing of both the soloists that is perfect, through the liner notes, the design of the CD and the selection of the programme, I am totally impressed.
I enjoyed most of the pieces on this double-CD set: I reiterate my suggestion that these eighteen works are taken at a leisurely pace. I would find it difficult to digest nine sonatas or sonatinas for recorder and piano at a single sitting.
I noted above that some of the composers presented here are ‘well-known’ other less so. It is good to see that Metier is giving an opportunity for the second groups’ music to be heard. I was particularly impressed with Peter Pope, David Dubery and John Sullivan. Let us hope that we can hear more music from their pens, as well as from the others in the near future.
Anthony BURGESS (1917-1993) Sonatina for recorder and piano (c.1990)
Nicolas MARSHALL (b.1942) Sonata for recorder and piano (2005)
Alan GIBBS (b.1932) Blithe Spirit (2000)
Gordon CROSSE (b.1937) ‘The Thing with Feathers’ (2010)
Wilfred JOSEPHS (1927-1997) Sonatina Op.4 (1953)
Barry FERGUSSON (b.1942) ‘The Untamed has a Language but no Words (2012)
David DUBERY (b.1948) Sonata for recorder and piano (2011)
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971) arr. David ELLIS (b.1933) Interludes from Hamlet (1961 arr.2005)
Roy Heaton SMITH (b.1928) Sonatina alla Fantasia, Op.23 (1950/51)
Anthony Burgess Tre Pezzetti (1994)
Herbert MURRILL (1909-1952) Sarabande (c.1950)
Peter POPE (1917-1991) Sonatina for recorder and piano (1939/48)
Dick BLACKFORD (b.1936) Sonata alla danza (2011/12)
Christopher WRIGHT (b.1954) Sonata for recorder and piano (2007)
Mátyás SEIBER (1905-1960) Pastorale (1941)
John SULLIVAN (b.1951) Joie de Vivre (2009)
Anthony BURGESS Sonata No.1 in C for recorder and piano (1990)
Anthony BURGESS Siciliano (?)
John Turner (recorders) Harvey Davies (piano)