Monday 14 May 2012

Celebrating British Music – Part 3

Frank Bridge (1879–1941) had for many years been only remembered through his famous pupil, Benjamin Britten. Britten paid tribute to his old teacher in his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

However, in his time he was very popular even though, after the First World War he radically changed his style to embrace a more advanced style influenced by the Second Viennese School. This change doesn’t render his music difficult to modern ears but in his own time it was considered radical.

Bridge is now well served on CD especially with the recordings of his orchestral works on Chandos. The six CD’s in this series are all with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Richard Hickox. As usual the recordings are first rate.

Of the six discs I would suggest volumes 1 to 4 are the most representative of Bridge.

Vol. 1 CHAN 9950

Vol.2 CHAN 10012

Vol.3 CHAN 10112

Vol. 4 CHAN 10188

Volume one includes the wonderful Enter Spring, Volume two the earlier tone poem The Sea, Volume three Phantasm for Piano and Orchestra with Howard Shelley in fine form and Volume four includes the late work for Cello and Orchestra, Oration, effectively a Cello Concerto played wonderfully by Alban Gerhardt.

Naxos has also provided fine performances of the quartets with the Maggini Quartet and piano works with that fine pianist Ashley Wass.

John Ireland (1879–1962) featured in my blog of 23rd April 2012 when I reviewed a new book The John Ireland Companion edited by that great champion of British music, Lewis Foreman.

I still think Ireland is underrated as a composer. His finest work is probably the Piano Concerto in Eb, but Legend for Piano and Orchestra as well as his works for solo piano are to my mind equally fine.

Ireland is another composer recorded by both Chandos and Naxos. Chandos have issued a number of orchestral discs including the Piano Concerto, Legend for Piano and Orchestra and Symphonic Rhapsody Mai Dun. These represent the best of Ireland’s works with orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson with Eric Parkin (piano).

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Naxos have recorded John Lenehan on four CD’s of all the piano works including the Piano Concerto and Legend which feature John Wilson conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

Vol. 1 8.553700

Chandos are also the company that has recorded much of the music of Cyril Scott (1879–1970).  The son of a shipping magnate he studied in Frankfurt where he met the composers Norman O’Neill, Roger Quilter, Balfour Gardiner and Percy Grainger known as The Frankfurt Group. 

The four Chandos discs include the symphonies 1, 3 and 4 together with Three Symphonic Dances taken from the abandoned Second Symphony, Piano Concertos 1 and 2, Cello Concerto, Violin Concerto and various orchestral works including a particular favourite of mine, Neptune.

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Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953) was an extraordinarily gifted musician, able to sight read any orchestral score. His early music took the form of tone poems influenced by Celtic legends and his love of the coast of western Ireland. A friend of nationalists involved in the Easter uprising of 1916, he was an unlikely figure to become Master of the King’s Music in 1942. In 1921 he wrote a piano sonata that was of such symphonic proportions that, with a different middle movement, it became his first symphony. He went on to write six more symphonies, one of the great symphonic cycles of the 20th century.

That great champion of British music and of Bax in particular, the late Vernon ‘Tod’ Handley recorded all seven symphonies as well as many of the tone poems for Chandos. These must be the finest recordings of these works ever recorded.

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Sir George Dyson (1883–1964) was very much involved in musical education as Director of Music at Marlborough College, Rugby School, Wellington College and finally Director of the Royal College of Music from 1937 to his retirement in 1952. This gave him little time to compose yet he produced works that were very popular in his time and have since been recorded. His choral Canterbury Pilgrims was a favourite with choral societies for many years and is set to be revived at this years (2012) Hereford Three Choirs Festival. Richard Hickox has made a fine recording on Chandos as he has also done with Dyson’s other large choral work Quo Vadis.

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Dyson also wrote a fine Symphony in G as well as a Violin Concerto which are included on an attractive CD. Again Richard Hickox conducts.

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George Butterworth (1885–1916) was a victim of the First World War, killed at the age of 30 years on the Somme. He left a small number of works that showed such promise that he may well have gone on to greater things had he lived.

You will not get a better performance of his Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad than that by Bryn Terfel on Deutsche Grammophon. You also will get equally fine performances of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, Ireland’s Sea Fever and Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring.

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Another tragic figure from the early 20th century was Ivor Gurney (1890-1937).  The son of a Gloucester tailor and a seamstress, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1911. Gurney was not only a talented musician but also a fine poet. As a composer it was mainly in the form of song that he worked.

Sadly Gurney’s health was never good but it was severely worsened by his First World War experiences, eventually leading to his internment in the City of London Mental Hospital where he died of tuberculosis in 1937 aged only 47 years.

My favourite recording of Gurney songs is from Hyperion and includes songs by other composers affected by the First World War including Butterworth.

CDH 55237

Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) was the son of an American businessman but brought up in England being educated at Rugby and Pembroke College, Cambridge. He too was affected by the First World War when he lost his brother Kennard. His later work for narrator, chorus and orchestra, Morning Heroes, is in memory of his brother.

I particularly like his Colour Symphony based on heraldic ideas and recorded by Barry Wordsworth and the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra for Nimbus. I particularly love this performance well recorded in Brangwyn Hall Swansea and still available form Amazon.

NI 5294
Bliss’ favourite of all his compositions was his Meditation on a Theme of John Blow coupled on a Naxos CD with his Metamorphic Variations with David Lloyd-Jones and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.


Bliss succeeded Bax as Master of the Queen’s Music in 1953. Although a significant figure in British music between the wars, he continued writing into the 1960’s and 1970’s.

A friend and contemporary of Ivor Gurney was Herbert HOWELLS (1892 – 1983) who also rose from very humble origins in Lydney near Gloucester. His father was a plumber, decorator and builder who eventually went bankrupt. Thanks to a local benefactor he was able to study with Herbert Brewer the organist at Gloucester cathedral before going on to the Royal College of Music.

Surely his masterpiece must be Hymnus Paradisi written in the wake of the tragic death of his nine year old son Michael. Anyone who doesn’t know this wonderful  work should try to hear it as I’m sure they will not be disappointed particularly in such a fine performance as that by Vernon Handley and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir with Julie Kennard (soprano) and John Mark Ainsley (tenor).

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Chandos have issued a two CD set of Howells’ orchestral music with Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra.

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My next British music blog will look at the tragic Philip Heseltine alias Peter Warlock, his effect on E J Moeran and move on through Edmund Rubbra and William Walton.


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