Monday, 21 August 2017

It's not British, but...Music of the Night: American Nocturnes for piano

George Crumb is not part of my usual listening fare. No real reason: I have just never got around to hearing his music. Based on the seven pieces from his Eine kleine Mitternachtmusik (A Little Midnight Music) it is a situation that I may have to review. Crumb is regarded as an avant-garde composer, who creates his often-beautiful sound-world by way of unusual sonorities and extended playing techniques.  On the present discs, these pieces act as a continuous thread through the sequence of American ‘nocturnes.’ The inspiration for this music came from Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’ written in 1944. Crumb effectively deconstructs the theme and provides simultaneously a commentary and meditation on it. All the ‘advanced’ pianistic techniques are used: strumming and plucking of strings inside the instrument, tapping the piano’s woodwork with the fingers and the ironwork with a padded stick. It is played on an amplified piano:
The nine movements of Crumb’s Eine kleine Mitternachtmusik are 1. Nocturnal Theme; 2. Charade; 3. Premonition; 4. Cobweb and Peaseblossom (Scherzo); 5. Incantation; 6. Golliwog Revisited; 7. Blues in the Night; 8. Cadenza with Tolling Bells; 9. Midnight Transformation. Cecile Licad omits movements 6 and 8.
All these pieces conjure up a vivid nocturnal mood, that can be variously unsettling, eerie, scary and quite delicious.

More romantic fare is provided by Amy Beach, ‘the first great American-born female composer’ whose Hermit Thrush Pieces, op.92 were written in 1921. These two numbers – ‘A Hermit Thrush at Eve’ and ‘A Hermit Thrush at Morn’ have their inspiration in poems by the American poet John Vance Chaney and the British John Clare. Both pieces are a kind of crossover between Chopin and French Impressionism seen through the ears of Edward MacDowell. The Hermit Thrush is a native American bird which has fascinated many poets, writers and musicians over the years.  The other piece by Beach is the evocative ‘Dreaming’ from her Four Sketches (1892).  This is prefaced with a quote from Victor Hugo: Tu me parles du fond d'un rêve – ‘You speak to me from the depth of a dream…’ The music is suitably surreal in its elusive pianism.

Charles Griffes was influenced (amongst others) by Debussy, Scriabin and elements of Asian music. The present Nocturne (1915) is largely impressionistic in its mood, although there is some ‘high-romanticism’ in these pages. The composer even indulges in a little polytonality on occasion (two- or more - keys at once!). Griffes’ other offering is ‘Night Winds’ from Three Tone Pictures, op.5 (1911/15). This is another manifestly impressionistic piece complete with whole tone scales and harmonies. It is based on a poem, ‘The Lake’, by Edgar Allan Poe and has been described as ‘a shimmering spray of notes’ (Michael Lewin).

Louis Gottschalk’s ‘La chûte des feuilles’, Nocturne, op. 42 was composed in 1860 whilst the composer was in Havana, in Cuba. It is based on an original Cuban melody by Nicolás Ruiz Espadero (1832-1890). Yet the reality is that this work epitomises the French salon of mid-century Paris. A distinctive feature is the powerful middle section of the piece.

Something a little more sinister is found in Daniel Gregory Mason’s ‘Night Wind’, op.9, no.6. This piece, composed in 1913, is highly derivative of Franz Liszt’s virtuosic pianism, with its ‘evocation of a stormy night.’ It is the last number of his suite Country Pictures.  The liner notes enjoin the listener lookout for Mason’s use of the whole-tone scale (C, D, F# G# & A# etc.) in two Debussy-inspired sections of this work.  It is an impressive piece.

Ernest Bloch was born in Switzerland, but emigrated to the USA in 1917. The notes explain that as he did not take American citizenship until 1924, so In the Night: A Love Poem (1922), may not qualify for inclusion on this disc. However, I feel that this dark, lugubrious piece, with its ‘euphonious’ dissonance and nods to impressionism deserves it place in this collection.

Everyone knows Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings and his Violin Concerto, but I wonder how many have explored his fascinating piano music. Best-known (where known) are his Piano Sonata, op.26 and the jazz-infused Excursions, op.20. The present Nocturne, op. 33: Homage to John Field is standalone and was written during 1959. It pays tribute more to Chopin than the Irish John Field. Whatever the motivation, Barber does not try to write pastiche music of either composer: there is even a nod to a 12-note tone row in this music. It is very much in Barber’s ‘20th century’ style.

It was inevitable that Aaron Copland’s Night Thoughts: Homage to Ives was included on this double CD of Nocturnes. Apart from the Crumb pieces, this is the most modern work in the collection. It was written as a test piece for the 1973 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition which was held at Fort Worth, Texas.  Although this is not a hugely virtuosic piece, it is a challenging exploration of serial writing, more traditional resources and considerable dissonance. It is basically slow throughout with variety being provided by the deployment of textures. For listeners who think of Copland in terms of ‘Hoe-Downs’, ‘Appalachian Springs’ and ‘Fanfares for Common Men’ it will come as something of a culture shock.

I was impressed by Leo Ornstein’s Nocturne no.2. As the notes point out, Ornstein was regarded as the ‘wild man of music’ during the late 1910s and early 1920s. His music was characterised by ‘extreme (then) dissonance’ and for the composer’s ‘savage performances’ of his own music. Witness the present work. It is more a nightmare than an evening reverie, although there are some restful moments. The music is horrendously complex to read and difficult to play. It is given a stunning performance by Cecile Licad.

Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin has contributed a Little Nocturne, which is timeless in its stylistic parameters. This near-perfect piece was composed in the city of Boston in 2007. So, it is (in effect) an American work! 

George Whitefield Chadwick was one of the ‘Boston Six’: the others were Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, Edward MacDowell, John Knowles Paine and Horatio Parker.  Their mission was the Americanisation of European music. Chadwick’s Nocturne is a ‘late successor’ to Chopin’s genre, although note the ‘habanera-like’ rhythm played by the pianist’s left hand. A lovely piece.

The Nocturne, op.6 no.2 by Arthur Foote is entirely European in its mood and effect. The liner notes suggest that this is odd, as Foote is regarded as being the first ‘significant American composer who was entirely USA trained.’ Boundaries of land and sea matter little when the music is as attractive and moving as this piece is.

Ferde Grofé is best recalled as the person who orchestrated George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for the Paul Whiteman band. Which is a pity. Grofé wrote several fine orchestral suites, the most famous being the Grand Canyon Suite. Other Suites include the Hudson River, Madison Square Garden and the Niagara Falls. The Nocturne was originally written for orchestra with the present arrangement is by Domenico Salvino. The music is presented in ternary form with a central blues section framed by dream-like music and an impressively strong coda. Grofé uses exotic scales and subtle harmonies to create this all-American Nocturne.

I enjoyed Joseph Lamb’s clever Nightingale Rag. Associated with the other great ragtime composers, Scott Joplin and James Scott, Lamb gave up composing when ragtime began to be overtaken by jazz in the years following the First World War. This present rag is quiet and delicately nuanced.

Arthur Farwell’s 1905-piece Dawn, op.12 is influenced by melodies from the Nebraska Omaha tribe of native American Indians. It nods to Edward MacDowell’s earlier ‘Indianist’ essays. There is a delightfully unfocussed feel to this music.

The Nocturne (Ragusa) by Ernest Schelling has little to do with the USA. Ragusa may refer to a city in Sicily. It is also the historical name for the wonderful Croatian town of Dubrovnik. The score is prefaced with lines from a poem: ‘Chapels of the Dalmatian Coast/Half hidden in the rugged heights/Send out a silvery vesper call/Ragusa of haunting charm…’ This is an evocative piece, that will immediately appeal to anyone who has seen this part of the world. The music owes much to Debussy, but is sultrier in its mood.

The playing by Cecile Licad is impeccable. She is absolute master of these diverse styles. Her superb playing is complemented by the excellent recording by Danacord as well as the readable liner notes by Jeremy Nicolas and an introduction from Thomas Nickelsen.

I reviewed the first volume of this anthology of American Piano Music back in 2016. This included Sonatas by Alexander Reinagle, Elie Siegmeister, Edward MacDowell and Charles T. Griffes. This series from Danacord is designed to reveal ‘the stylistic breadth, high musical quality and great originality of the best American piano works.’ This second volume is a worthy successor to the first. I do recommend listening to the tracks a few at a time to get the most out of this exploration. I look forward to the next volume (American Landscapes, 2018) in the series with considerable interest and much impatience.

Track Listing:
Music of the Night: American Nocturnes
George CRUMB (b.1929) Nocturnal Theme: Eine kleine Mitternachtmusik, no. 1 (2002)
Amy BEACH (1867-1944) A Hermit Thrush at Eve, op. 92 no. 1 (1921)  
George CRUMB Charade: Eine kleine Mitternachtmusik, no. 2 (2002)     
Charles GRIFFES (1884-1920) Notturno: Three Fantasy Pieces, op. 6 no. 2 (1915)
Louis M. GOTTSCHALK (1829-1869) La chûte des feuilles, Nocturne, op. 42 (1860)
Daniel Gregory MASON (1873-1953) Night Wind from ‘Country Pictures’, op. 9, no. 6 (1913)
Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959) In the Night - A Love Poem (1922)  
Charles GRIFFES The Night Winds: Three Tone Pictures, op. 5, no. 3 (1911/15)
George CRUMB Premonition [1:47], Cobweb and Peaseblossom (Scherzo): Eine kleine Mitternachtmusik, nos. 3-4 (2002)
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981) Nocturne: Homage to John Field, op. 33 (1959)   
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990) Night Thoughts: Homage to Ives (1972) 
Leo ORNSTEIN (1893-2002) Nocturne no. 2 (1923)         
George CRUMB Incantation: Eine kleine Mitternachtmusik, no. 5 (2002)

Marc-André HAMELIN (b.1961) Little Nocturne (2007)
George Whitefield CHADWICK (1854-1931) Nocturne (1895)   
Amy BEACH Dreaming no. 3 from Four Sketches, op. 15 (1892)  
Arthur FOOTE (1853-1937) Nocturne, op. 6, no. 2 (1883)
George CRUMB Blues in the Night: Eine kleine Mitternachtmusik no. 7 (2002)  
Ferde GROFÉ (1892-1972) Deep Nocturne (1947) (piano transcription D. Savino (1882-1972))
Joseph LAMB (1887-1960) Nightingale Rag (1915)
Arthur FARWELL (1872-1952) Dawn, op. 12 (1902)       
Amy BEACH A Hermit Thrush at Morn, op. 92 no. 2 (1921)         
Ernest SCHELLING (1876-1939) Nocturne (Ragusa) (1926)       
George CRUMB Midnight Transformation: Eine kleine Mitternachtmusik no. 9 (2002)
Cecile Licad (Piano)
Rec.7-11 February 2017, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, USA
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

Friday, 18 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Vale: Contemporary music for flute and soloists on Metier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 11 August 2017

Philip Lane: Lyric Dances (2007)

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The Silver Hound and other songs by Betty Roe

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

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

Saturday, 5 August 2017

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Graham Whettham: Complete works for cello

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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