Sunday, 30 August 2015

Malcolm Arnold: Channel Islands

I have always had a soft spot for the Channel Islands and have long wanted to visit them. I had a school friend who used to go there with his parents, and I guess I was a little envious. At that time I was being taken to holiday resorts much nearer to my Glasgow home. Just a few weeks ago I sailed into St Peter’s Port and enjoyed exploring part of the beautiful island of Guernsey. For many years I have enjoyed the 1952 British Transport Film ‘Channel Islands’ and this was one of the icons that I had at the back of my mind when I arrived there.

The film is in colour and lasts for about 15 minutes. It was produced by the BTF stalwart Edgar Anstey. It is really a picture postcard with lots of scenes from most of the islands as well as a touch of history. At the time of filming the Channel Islands had only been liberated from German occupation for seven years. The advert for the film states ‘The Channel Islands have had a varied and exciting history. Jersey and Guernsey are ideal places for holidays. Jersey offers a wide variety of attractive bays for sport and relaxation; Guernsey still preserves something of an eighteenth-century atmosphere, and is a place for quieter enjoyment. It is an ideal centre for exploring the other smaller islands, and the film ends with a journey by boat to Herm.’

The other important thing about this film is the soundtrack by Malcolm Arnold. Most enthusiasts of the composer will know that he wrote much film music, for features such as The Bridge over the River Kwai, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, and on a lighter note the scores for all four of the original St Trinians’s films.  Less well known are Arnold’s contributions to the genre of documentaries. These were often for the Crown Film Unit, This Modern Age and Anglo-Scottish Productions. Channel Islands was the only score that Arnold produced for the British Transport Films.
During 1951/2 Malcolm Arnold had composed a large amount of music including the second set of English Dances, his one-act opera, The Dancing Master and the Concerto for piano duet and strings. Other film music included scores for The Stolen Face, Curtain Up! and The Island

The screenplay of  Channel Islands is a good exploration of the history, scenery and customs of the islands including Jersey, Guernsey and Herm. It opens with an overview from the prehistoric era and worship of the earth mother, through the rise of Christianity, to the Napoleonic alarums, the German occupation and the transition to peace. Then follows the excellent footage of the Battle of the Flowers, the tomato growing business (where have Guernsey tomatoes gone? one never sees them in British shops these days), and an American farmer buying a beautiful heifer and harbour activity.
The scenery is impressive with lovely shots of the sea, games on the beaches, clambering along clifftop paths and exploring the centre of St Peter’s Port. 
The music is perfect for this film. Arnold excels with the ‘sea music’ which reflects the stormy seas, the calm bays and the rocky headlands. There is a wonderful, typically Arnoldian, jazz influenced quickstep which accompanies the beach scenes. 
It is a score that would work well as a miniature tone poem or a suite of extracts.  

Unfortunately Channel Islands is not uploaded to YouTube, however it is available as part of the BTF Volume 8 Points and Aspects.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Some Lost British Cantatas from the Edwardian Era

Just a list today. I was investigating a specific cantata by Rutland Boughton, when I turned up this list of ‘recently published works’ by Novello in the September 1910 issue of the Musical Times. I have only listed the British examples: there are also two, one each by Schubert and Gounod. Most of the composers are familiar names to British music enthusiasts, although I guess many would have to look up Messrs. William H. Speer, Bertram Luard-Selby and David Stephen.
How many of these works have survived into the 21st century? How many deserve to have survived?  Do any demand revival? Fortunately, the scores for a surprising number of them are available on line, so it is possible to assess. However, as I have found in investigating just one work, this does take much time and effort, and the problem of subjectivity is ever present. One person’s ‘high-flown twaddle’ is another’s lost masterpiece. Playing the score through on the piano is one thing: organising a performance with chorus, soloists and orchestra is another. Finally, maybe some of these works could be performed by a ‘Cantatas from Scratch’ group meeting for pleasure rather than profit?

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Bon-Bon Suite
Cyril B. Rootham: Andromeda
Ernest Walker: Ode to a Nightingale
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: Beyond these voices there is peace.
Rutland Boughton: Midnight & The Invincible Armada
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Endymion’s Dream
Frederic H. Cowen: The Veil
Charles A. E. Harris: The Sands of Dee
Herbert Brewer: Sir Patrick Spens
Henry Walford Davies: Ode on Time
Alex. M. Maclean: The Annunciation
Rutland Boughton: The Skeleton in Armour
Bertram Luard-Selby: The Fakenham Ghost
Herbert Brewer: Summer Sports
Henry Walford Davies: Noble Numbers
William.H. Speer: The Lay of Cuthbert
Ivor Atkins: Hymn of Faith

David Stephen: The Laird O’ Cockpen. 

Monday, 24 August 2015

Mendelssohn’s Debt to Nature

Arthur Rackham's 'Puck'
I have always regarded Felix Mendelssohn as being an honorary British composer. Other names that fall into this category include Handel (of course), Ignaz Moscheles, Clementi and J.C. Bach. I do not deny their nationalities, but remark that they spent much time in the United Kingdom.  Furthermore, I have always felt that William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was actually set in the Forest of Arden (or the home park of a great estate) rather than a wood near Athens. This born out by the names of the rustics, the legendary nature of Puck and the flora and fauna the playwright mentions. Add to this the fact that Mendelssohn’s incidental music for the play is one of the most ‘English’ creations in the composer’s catalogue and I have a great excuse for printing this short anecdote from Anecdotes of Great Musicians by W. Francis Gates (London, Weekes & Co, 1896). It is one of my favourite books.
I do not answer for the absolute historicity of the story: it seems a nice idea.
‘Many a composer has been indebted to some sound or tone in nature for the suggestion of musical ideas. Nature suggests and man elaborates the melody, though some writers would have us believe that the composer is simply the amanuensis of nature, in many cases. But we must remember that music is art, and that nature supplies nature, not art.
A good composer will turn to account a suggestion from any source, however humble. Mendelssohn took pleasure in acknowledging his debt to nature in these matters. While Mendelssohn was not a Beethoven, while he could not so well depict the rugged, the grand, the heroic, as did that musical Jupiter, yet Mendelssohn was the tone poet of the forest and field, the bright sun, and the blue sky. A friend of his relates how they were walking in the country one day, and getting tired, threw themselves on the grass in the shade and were there pursuing their conversation. Suddenly Mendelssohn seized him by the arm and whispered, "Hush!" A moment later the composer told him that a large fly had just then gone buzzing by and he wished to hear its sound die away in the distance.
Mendelssohn was at that time working on his overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, and not long after, it was completed. He then showed his friend a certain descending bass modulation with the remark, "There, that's the fly that buzzed past us at Schönhausen."[1]
[1] Schönhausen is a city in the district of Stendal in Saxony-Anhalt in Germany.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Arthur Hervey: Tone Poem ‘Summer.’

In W.J. Galloway’s Musical History (London, Christophers, 1910) the author discusses the achievement of the Philharmonic Society. In particular he refers to the then recent 1908/9 seasons where a number of British works had been performed. These included Hamilton Harty’s ‘Comedy’Overture, Edward German’s Symphonic Suite ‘The Seasons’, Edward Elgar’s Symphony No.1 in A flat and Enigma Variations, William Wallace’s tone-poem ‘Francois Villon’, Ethel Smyth’s Overture ‘The Wreckers’, Frederick Delius’s ‘In a Summer Garden’ and John Blackwood McEwen’s ‘Grey Galloway’. It is gratifying to see that all these works have received a modern recording, even if only the Delius and Elgar works are still heard in the concert hall. However, Galloway mentions one work that has totally disappeared by the wayside: Arthur Hervey’s (1855-1922) tone-poem ‘Summer.’ I will give a brief biography of the composer in a future post.
‘Summer’ received its first performed on 25 September at the opening day of the 1907 Cardiff Festival, for which it was especially written. Three important premieres were given at that concert including Part II of Granville Bantock’s massive oratorio Omar Khayyam, Hamilton Harty’s Ode to a Nightingale and the present work. The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Frederic Cowen.

The most extensive review of‘Summer’ was given in The Times (26 September). It began by reminding the reader that three of the composer’s tone poems have been given at previous Cardiff Festivals: these included On the Heights and On the March, both performed in 1902 and In the East which was premiered in 1904. The reviewer considered that ‘Summer’ ‘is a remarkably successful piece of landscape-painting in music.’ He insisted that the ‘two beautiful themes of voluptuous warmth are interwoven with great skill, and the section which represents a thunderstorm does so in an unconventional manner, which never once suggests [Beethoven’s] Pastoral Symphony and surely deserves credit for not suggesting it, especially since the key of both is F major.’ The reviewer concludes by noting that the‘scoring is rich and scholarly, and that the ‘structure of the piece is interesting and the manipulation of the themes most skilful.’

The reviewer in the Gloucester Citizen (26 September) damned with faint praise: he suggested that ‘the performances were excellent and all the [new] works proved interesting.’ The Manchester Courier (26 September) noted that the subject of Hervey’s tone poem ‘is the familiar one of a typical sunshiny summer day, with a thunderstorm suddenly breaking on its stillness and departing.’
The Observer (29 September) was less enthusiastic: Mr Arthur Hervey‘who has so often given proof of his freshness and melodic gifts in the‘descriptive overture’ style, was not heard at his best in ‘Summer’. It contains some graceful writing and it is true, but it lacked the character which made his ‘Youth’ and ‘On the Heights’ so pleasing and, in a sense, distinctive.’
‘Summer’ was given its London premiere on Thursday 18 February 1909 with the Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer. Other works in the concert included the Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 in C minor the Prelude to Act II of Goldmark’s opera Die Königin von Saba, a performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F minor with soloist Leopold Godowsky, Luigi Mancinelli’s Overture to Cleopatra. Godowsky also played two solo pieces by Brahms –Capriccio op.76 no.2 and the Paganini Variations. The Musical Times (March 1909) briefly noted Hervey’s ‘genial tone poem ‘Summer’successfully produced…conducted by the composer.’
As far as I can see, Arthur Hervey’s tone-poem ‘Summer’ was never published. It is to be hoped that the manuscript/parts is languishing in an archive somewhere.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Scandinavian Classics Volume 5

I am not a great enthusiast of ‘historic recordings’, usually preferring the latest CD or download version of any given work (assuming the performance is great). There are exceptions to this ‘rule’ either when the work is unavailable in any other recording or when there is near-universal agreement that Boult’s, Beecham’s, Barbirolli’s (or whoever’s) reading of a particular work is ‘the best.’ And then there are my favourite pianists – Moura Lympany, Myra Hess, Eileen Joyce – all of whom I happily accept in less-than-perfect recordings. In that case it is their interpretation and personality that matters: not the surface noise.
Boyd Neel’s name immediately caught my attention on the track listing with his String Orchestra’s rendering of Asger Hamerik’s Symphonie Spirituelle.  I was introduced to a number of well-known pieces of British music by this orchestra on the old Decca Eclipse label, so I have a soft spot for him. Add to that the fact that he did much to bring then-contemporary English string music into the public domain and he is a hero of mine. Hamerik’s work is the sixth of seven symphonies (there is also an unnumbered symphony in C minor, op.3 (1860) which is lost) and was composed in 1897. It was scored for a large string orchestra. Rob Barnett (MWI, November 2009) is right in suggesting that it recalls/foreshadows Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Frank Bridge’s Suite for Strings and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. It is a beautifully contrived work that is full of depth, poetry and reflection. Nevertheless, I wonder if it just a wee bit long for its own good.  I know there are other versions of this work currently available, but Boyd Neel’s 1945 recording will satisfy me.

I listen to Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony about once a year. Reviewing this CD makes it twice so far in 2015. There are currently 92 versions of this masterpiece currently listed in the Arkiv catalogue so one cannot explore them all. I have a preference for Antony Collins’ reading (another historical recording to prove my rule!) and Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra on BIS. (BIS-CD-863)
Many years ago I bought another Decca Eclipse LP: this time of Sibelius’s Karelia Suite and the gargantuan Fifth Symphony (ECS 502). It was my introduction to the great Finn. Alas, some thirty years ago, I gave away/sold/lost this album. I have not heard it since. Imagine my surprise when researching this present CD I found that Danacord have presented this self-same recording (The Danish State Broadcasting Orchestra conducted Erik Tuxen) on this release.  The same applies to Thomas Jensen conducting the DSBO in the ‘Karelia’ suite. It is fantastic to have them back in my CD collection.

The second disc is devoted to a number of ‘minor’ works. The opening overture by J.P.E. Hartmann was written for the tragedy Hakon Jarl by Adam Oehlenschläger. The liner notes describe it as a ‘Nordic’ tone poem that is full of tragedy and foreboding. This is a most moving piece. 
Erik Tuxen conducts the DBSO once again in this 1953 recording of Johann Svendsen’s flamboyant Festival Polonaise: a definite crowd-pleaser if ever these was one.
I am not a fan of Carl Nielsen, but his Aladdin Suite, originally written as incidental music, is enjoyable. So too is ‘The Cockerel’s Dance’ from Maskarade.  Nothing very demanding: but quite fun.
Knudåge Riisager’s Introduction to ‘Niels Ebbesen’ is filmic in its expansive and sweeping exposition.  Svend Erik Tarp’s enjoyable ‘Comedy’ Overture is one of those pieces of music that is hard to define. Is it contemporary, pastiche or light? Who knows: but I feel it is one of the best wrought pieces on this second CD. 
There is a definite magic about Emil Reesen’s Danish Rhapsody than seems inspire thoughts of Hans Christian Andersen as well as something a little more romantic.  It is based on folk songs gathered in Jutland. We hear dancing, harvest-home songs and the poetry of a warm summer’s evening.

My favourite piece on this second CD is the ‘Tango Jalousie’ by Jacob Gade – apparently no relation to the other Gades of Danish music. This is one of those pieces that the listener seems to have always known – definite end of the pier music. Sadly, it would appear to be the only piece that is played from Gade’s catalogue.
The CD concludes with two fine numbers by H.C. Lumbye, onetime maestro at the Tivoli Gardens. The Copenhagen Railway Steam-Galop complete with a battery of locomotive sound effects is one of the best pieces of ‘train’ music: I could listen to this over and over again. Its recording date of 1933 does nothing to diminish the exuberance and sheer fun of this piece of persiflage.  The final work is the equally exciting Champagne-Galop: just the thing to conclude a visit to Copenhagen’s remarkable Tivoli Gardens, although a glass of beer in the Nyhavn would also be a treat…

I was most impressed with the sound restoration on this CD. Perhaps it just goes to prove how relatively good recording technology was, especially in the post-war years. Danacord have presented a packed programme which is exceptionally varied in its musical explorations.  The liner notes by Claus Byrith are excellent and informative.

I guess that the highlight for me is the above noted rediscovery of an old favourite recording of Sibelius 5. However, there is plenty to enjoy, in the ‘lollipops’ in the second CD – especially the Tango Jalousie and Lumbye’s train music A great collection of interesting music that deserves our attention. 

Disc 1 of 2
Asger HAMERIK (1843-1923) Symphonie Spirituelle (1897)       
Boyd Neel String Orchestra / Boyd Neel      
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Symphony No. 5 (1915 rev. 1916, 1919)     
The Danish State Broadcasting Orchestra/Erik Tuxen          
Jean SIBELIUS Karelia-Suite (1893)          
The Danish State Broadcasting Orchestra/Thomas Jensen    

Disc 2 of 2
J. P. E. HARTMANN (1805-1900) Overture to ‘Hakon Jarl’ (1844)]        
The Danish State Broadcasting Orchestra/John Frandsen     
Johan SVENDSEN (1840-1911) Festival Polonaise (1873)
The Danish State Broadcasting Orchestra/ Erik Tuxen         
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931) Incidental Music to Aladdin (c.1919)
The Tivoli Symphony Orchestra/Svend Christian Felumb    
Carl NIELSEN Introduction to [Scene] 7. The Mother (1920) [2:45] Cockerel's Dance from Maskarade (1904-6) [3:49]           
The Tivoli Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Jensen       
Knudåge RIISAGER (1897-1974) Introduction to ‘Niels Ebbesen’ (1948)
The Royal Orchestra/Johan Hye-Knudsen    
Svend Erik TARP (1908-1994) Comedy Overture (1942)
The Tivoli Symphony Orchestra/Svend Christian Felumb    
Emil REESEN (1887-1964) Himmerland, Danish Rhapsody (1926)          
The Danish State Broadcasting Orchestra/Emil Reesen        
Jacob GADE (1879-1963) Tango Jalousie (1925)
Wandy Tworek (violin) The Danish State Broadcasting Orchestra/Emil Reesen
H. C. LUMBYE (1810-1874) Copenhagen Railway Steam-Galop (1847)
The Tivoli Symphony Orchestra/Carlo Andersen      
H. C. LUMBYE Champagner-Galop (1845) ]          
The Royal Orchestra/Georg Høeberg

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Sir Herbert Brewer: Competition Adjudicator – two anecdotes

I transcribe these anecdotes with no commentary. I was unable to find any reference in newspapers or musical journals to the competition alluded to in the second story.  I add a very brief biography of Brewer at the end of the quotations.

‘The life of an adjudicator at competition musical festival is full of varied experiences and the judge is exposed to as much criticism as he himself expends on the competitors. I have judge at most of the competition festivals throughout the country, and have has the experience of  hearing hundreds of miners – friends and foes alike –sing ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow; after hearing my decision. On the other hand I have been asked if I would like to know ‘the back way out!’ On that particular occasion there were about ten thousand people present, and when the secretary put this question to me before the competition commenced, I failed to grasp his meaning. I asked him to explain, and he informed me that, at their last competition, the tow adjudicators had to escape through the back door; a four-wheeler was waiting for them and these distinguished men were put on the floor of the cab and covered up with rugs, and that is how they escaped to the station!’

‘I think the most severe task I ever has at a competition festival was when I had to listen to Chopin’s Ballade in G minor fifty-five times! We began at ten o’clock in the morning and did not finish until twelve hours later. One remembers the stories of early martyrdom and one wonders why it was reserved for the twentieth century – the alleged age of philanthropy – to discover a torture which, for subtle and exquisite agony, puts all the old instruments of torture into the shade’.
Brewer, Sir Herbert, Memories of Choirs and Cloisters: Fifty Years of Music (London, John Lane: The Bodley Head Limited , 1931) p.147f

Sir Herbert Brewer was born in Gloucester in 1865. He was an organist, conductor and composer.  After beginning life as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral he held posts in the organ loft of churches in Gloucester, Oxford, Coventry and then Bristol Cathedral.  In 1896 he became organist at Gloucester Cathedral. Later, he conducted the Three Choirs Festival when in that city. He was also director of music at the Gloucester Orchestral Society. Brewer’s musical output included cantatas, oratorios, anthems, organ music, a few piano solos and lighter music for choral societies and orchestras. He was knighted in 1926 and died two years later in the city of his birth. 

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Barry Ferguson: South and West Suite for organ

I recently acquired a copy of Roger Sayer playing the magnificent Klais organ in the Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran parish church in Reykjavík, Iceland.  This CD was issued in 1996 as Volume 45 of the Guild Great European Organs. Works include Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D major, Jean Langlais’ Triptyque, and Marcel Dupré’s ‘Allegro Deciso’ from Evocation, op.27. However the work that caught my imagination was Barry Ferguson’s South and West Suite. I guess that I felt a work which implied the English landscape was an odd choice for an Icelandic organ recital. However further investigation reveals that the composer preceded Roger Sayer as organist at Rochester Cathedral. So it is a fine tribute.
There is precious little written about this work, however my first impression was of a well-crafted piece that looks to the French school with some nods to Percy Whitlock.
The title of the work comes from the second stanza of Thomas Hardy’s delightful poem ‘Weathers’ which was first published in Good Housekeeping (May 1921). It was later included on Late Lyrics and Earlier which appeared in the following year.

This is the weather the cuckoo likes, 
And so do I; 
When showers betumble the chestnut spikes, 
And nestlings fly; 
And the little brown nightingale bills his best, 
And they sit outside at 'The Traveller's Rest,' 
And maids come forth sprig-muslin drest, 
And citizens dream of the south and west, 
And so do I. 

This is the weather the shepherd shuns, 
And so do I; 
When beeches drip in browns and duns, 
And thresh and ply; 
And hill-hid tides throb, throe on throe, 
And meadow rivulets overflow, 
And drops on gate bars hang in a row, 
And rooks in families homeward go, 
And so do I. 

The South and West Suite is composed in four well-balanced movements, each dedicated to people or places in the landscape.
The first is ‘Bideford Pastorale’ This is gentle reflective music which presents a fine musical impression of the painting ‘A view of Bideford from Upcott Hill.’ This was by an unknown artist and was painted around 1845. It is currently in Burton Art Gallery.  Bideford, in Cornwall, is where the composer spent part of his childhood years, so it is inherently nostalgic in tone.
The liner notes point out that the second movement, ‘Pavana Chromatica ‘was inspired by a visit to Saltram House in Plympton Plymouth.  This is a George II period house based on a Tudor original largely restored by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The mood of this piece is stately, as the title implies. There is a classical poise to this music that is satisfying. Here and there a hint of something Scottish makes itself felt.
The Toccata, which does not have an obvious topographical location, is dedicated to Joy Finzi, the widow of the composer Gerald. Ferguson wrote this piece in memory of her and recognises her encouragement. It is very much a big, Gallic sounding piece that is lively, rhythmical and virtuosic.
The final movement is entitled ‘Sunset at West Loatmead.’  I could not find a West Loatmead on the map, however I guess the composer’s intention was to create an image of the North Devon Landscape. It is the most serious and introverted of the pieces.
The Gramophone magazine notes that the Suite is ‘a remarkably French-sounding Suite, ostensibly reflecting aspects of the very English county of Devon…’  It is a god description of the piece. 
Interestingly the Hardy’s poem has been set by a number of composers including John Ireland, Michael Head, Phyllis Tate and Eric Thiman. 

Barry Ferguson was born in 1942 and was an organ scholar at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He was Assistant Organist at Peterborough Cathedral and the Organist at Wimbourne Minster and Rochester Cathedral. At present he is a freelance composer, lecturer and recitalist.

Barry Ferguson’s South and West Suite can be heard on PRCD495. It has been loaded onto YouTube. (Search under work’s title). 

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Moura Lympany plays Henry Litolff’s famous Scherzo.

There is no doubt that the Henry Litolff’s Scherzo from the Concerto Symphonique, No.4, op.101 is a popular work: it is regularly played on Classic FM often in the recording by Peter Donohoe and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton (Hyperion CDA66889). This includes the entire concerto and is the only recording of the complete work currently available.  The Scherzo is a piece of music that is undeniably effective, but can be judged as being built on some ‘slender and over-worked material.’ The mood is that of Mendelssohn rather than of Liszt in spite of its considerable virtuosity.
I cannot recall the first time I heard Litolff’s Scherzo, however it is one of those pieces that seems to have cropped up regularly on records and wireless. The Arkiv catalogue currently includes some 15 versions of this ‘extract’ ranging from Winifred Atwell to John Ogden.
I recently bought the APR CD of Moura Lympany’s The HMV Recordings 1947-1952 (APR6011) and was delighted to find her 1948 recording of this Scherzo which was originally issued on HMV C3763. The Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by Walter Süsskind.

Edward Sackville and Desmond Shawe-Taylor (The Record Guide, 1955) suggest that this recording is a ‘bright and clear little disc…’ but remind readers that ‘a stylistically impeccable rendering of this piece exists in a version by Irene Scharrer.’
The analytical notes in The Gramophone (July 1948) also reminds the reader of the competition to this recording – Irene Scharrer which was issued on October 1933 by the London Symphony Orchestra under Henry Wood.  A.R. notes that Sharrer’s version (Columbia, DB1267) was ‘discovered’ during the Second World War and became something of a ‘hit’ in various services’ gramophone clubs. Stephen Sisk has referred to it (Scharrer) as a ‘sparkling, often spine tingling performance.’
The reviewer notes that Lympany’s recording ‘starts with an explosive force which I cannot think the composer…intended and at a speed which is surely excessive.’ However he goes on to suggest that Lympany’s ‘light fingered playing…is extremely skilful and gay.’ He considers that if the ‘tinkling exuberance’ continued it would drive ‘one mad.’ I get the impression that he prefers Scharrer, in spite of some cuts to the music in that older recording.
Moura Lympany was to record the Scherzo again during the nineteen-sixties with Sir Malcolm Sargent and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. 

For the record, Henry Litolff was born in London on 6 February 1818. His father was from Alsace and his mother was English. Litolff studied with Ignaz Moscheles. His first public concert was on 24 July 1832 at Covent Garden. A few years later, after a marriage that was not approved of by his parents, he left for France. Litolff made a considerable name for himself as a concert pianist in Paris. He separated from his wife and devoted himself to his playing career, touring extensively. In 1851 he took over the running of the publisher Meyer (renamed Litolff) after marrying the founder’s widow. His final years were spent in Paris where he devoted much time to composition.  His works include four operas, a number of operettas, five concerto-symphoniques for piano and orchestra as well as chamber music and recital pieces for piano. Alas, he is now only recalled for his Scherzo and for the music company that bore his name. 

Moura Lympany’s 1948 recording of Litolff’s Scherzo can be heard on YouTube.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Walter Leigh: Jolly Roger

My introduction to Walter Leigh was the overture to the present ‘burlesque.’ It was included on a wonderful LP of ‘More Lyrita Lollipops’ (SRCS. 99) released in 1979. This album also included music by Hamilton Harty, William Alwyn, Michael Balfe, Arnold Bax and Elgar. I still have my vinyl copy of the release.  In 1985 an album dedicated to Leigh’s music was issued by Lyrita (SRCS.126) – this included the Concertino for harpsichord and string orchestra, Music for string orchestra, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Suite and the Overture and Dance from the incidental music to Aristophanes’ The Frogs. Fortunately, all the above named works have been re-released on CD. There was another disc produced in 1995 of Leigh’s piano music and songs. I guess that if you blinked, you would have missed it: it is now deleted. In 2005 Dutton Epoch issued a fine conspectus of the composer’s ‘complete’ chamber music, now available as a download.
Before any of this industry occurred the BBC had produced a broadcast of Walter Leigh’s Jolly Roger or ‘The Admiral’s Daughter’. It went on the air on 21 December 1972.  Glancing at the BBC Radio Times shows that the burlesque had actually been broadcast in various incarnations over the years, including ‘selected scenes’ on the nascent television network (using the Baird Process) as early as 1933.
It is not the place to analyse Walter Leigh’s music. However it is important to note that there were two sides to his musical character – his ‘art’ or ‘serious’ music and his attraction towards writing for the stage, film, radio.  At the time of his death in 1942 The Times could report that the general public will best recall him for his ‘intimate revues’ and his two operas –The Pride of the Regiment and the present Jolly Roger. Another major achievement was his score for The Song of Ceylon, which received an award for ‘best film’ at the 1935 International Film Festival in Brussels.
Leigh suffers from the lack of a detailed biography: any understanding of the composer’s life, works and standing have to be pieced together from a variety of sources. It is to be hoped that a biography will be forthcoming.
The first thing to remind the listener of is that burlesque’s title Jolly Roger relates to a person, not a flag, as some enthusiasts of Treasure Island and other piratical endeavours would intuit.  The action is set in Jamaica in the year of our Lord 1690. Nevertheless, the tale does include all the traditional apparatus of pirate stories, including the skull and crossbones, buccaneers and rum.

The three acts are set on the private landing stage of Government House, aboard the pirate ship and the terrace of Government House, respectively.  The plot involves the evil Sir Roderick Venom who was Governor of Jamaica, and was party to piratical activities in his jurisdiction. He causes an innocent planter, Jolly Roger, to be arrested, accused of piracy and sentenced to a flogging. Fortunately, his plans are disrupted by the arrival of Admiral Sir William Rowlocks and his beautiful daughter Amelia. Along with their companions they resolve to rid the Jamaica of the wicked pirates. Predictably, the love interest if amply satisfied by the ultimate marriage of Roger and Amelia.
The libretto was by Scobie Mackenzie and V.C. Clinton-Baddeley (1900-70). The first performance was on 13 February 1933 at the Opera House in Manchester and it subsequently played at the Savoy Theatre in the West End.
Musically, Jolly Roger could be described as Sir Arthur Sullivan meets Paul Hindemith. This is not a perverse as it may at first seem. What Walter Leigh has achieved is the combination of Sullivan’s sparkle, wit and charm with his own ‘creative gift’ derived from study with the German composer. Certainly, the score is well-contrived, distinctive and has ‘a deftness and allure’ denied many then contemporary works in the same genre.  Paul Conway notes the similarity between Leigh and Richard Rodney Bennett as composers who could approach film and light music with ‘the same seriousness…they brought to their concert works.’

The liner notes are highly detailed. After the usual track, cast and character listings, there is a good synopsis of the three acts. Paul Conway has provided an excellent essay on the composer, his works and the genesis and reception of Jolly Roger.

I enjoyed this performance immensely- it is such fun. Two questions suggest themselves to me. Is Jolly Roger worth reviving as a stage production in 2015? I am not convinced: it is very much a work of its time, in spite of the undisputable quality of its music. Even the present recording is somewhat ephemeral: listen for the realistic seagull sounds!
On the other hand, I would recommend this CD to all enthusiasts of light opera.  As the contemporary Play Pictorial put it, ‘Mr Leigh’s music [is] tuneful and scholarly… [and] has caught something of Sullivan’s spirit and mingled it with his own creative gift…’ It is this that makes Jolly Roger such a success and deserves our attention more than 80 years after its premiere.

Walter LEIGH (1905-1942) Jolly Roger (or the Admiral’s Daughter: A New Musical Burlesque (1933)
Sir Roderick Venom (tenor) Neilson Taylor; Sir William Rowlocks (tenor) Alan Dudley; Jolly Roger (tenor) Vernon Midgely; Bold Ben Blister (Bass) Leslie Fyson; The Bloody Pirate (baritone) Gordon Faith; Amelia (soprano) Marietta Midgley; Miss Flora Pott (mezzo soprano) Helen Landis; Prudence Wary (contralto) Patricia Whitmore
The Ambrosian Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra/Ashley Lawrence

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

Monday, 3 August 2015

Sir Thomas Beecham on Edward Elgar

The saying of Sir Thomas Beecham that Elgar is ‘the musical equivalent of St Pancras Station’ is well-known: it is quoted on the Classic FM website as one of the ’22 Best [Musical] Insults. It suggests that the great conductor felt that Elgar’s music was past its sell-by date.  In his autobiographical The Mingled Chime, Beecham writes a few paragraphs that cannot be described as insulting: rather damning with the faint praise. Two things of interest: firstly, I think that Elgar is more popular today than Delius and secondly, St Pancras Station in its newest incarnation as the Eurostar terminal, combining the Victorian architecture of William Henry Barlow and George Gilbert Scott with the best of contemporary design, is now a well-loved London landmark. Finally, I do not believe the passage given below reveals Beecham as being quite as scathing towards Elgar as some of his more vehement detractors would wish.

‘The reputation of Delius continued to grow, although it was not yet rivalling that of Elgar whom the British public had placed on a pedestal higher than that occupied by any native composer since Purcell. I did not find this valuation shared by either our own or foreign musicians, and on those occasions when in later years I played this [Elgar] composer's works in continental countries, as well as in the United States, I found that time had failed to maintain it. All the same there is not the least doubt that most of what Elgar wrote between 1895 and 1914 showed an undeniable advance over anything produced by his English predecessors or contemporaries in the more orthodox forms such as the symphony and the oratorio.
The writing itself is clearer and more varied in style, the grasp of the subject closer and keener, and the use of the orchestra is often, but not always, admirable. The better side of him is to be found in miniature movements, where he is often fanciful, charming and, in one or two instances, exquisite. His big periods and 'tuttis' are less happy; bombast and rhetoric supplant too frequently real weight and poetical depth, and he strays with a dangerous ease to the borderline of a military rhodomontade [vain and empty boasting] that is hardly distinguishable from the commonplace and the vulgar. Here and there are cadences of a charm that are quite his own, unlike anything else in music, evoking memories without being in themselves reminiscent, and breathing a sentiment to be found in much English literature written between 1830 and 1880, notably Tennyson. But whatever the quality or merit of the invention, his is the work of a truly serious and honest craftsman’.
Beecham, Thomas, A Mingled Chime (London, Hutchinson, 1949) p.182