Wednesday 23 May 2012

Celebrating British Music – Part 4

I begin my fourth part of this survey of British music with the tragic Philip Arnold Heseltine (Peter Warlock) (1894-1930). An extremely gifted musician and composer, he led a somewhat dissolute life eventually committing suicide at the age of only 36 years. In the 1920’s he shared a cottage in Eynesford, Kent with the composer Moeran, together with a Maori housekeeper, a mistress and whoever was visiting. The drinking and riotous living often scandalised the locals.

A good disc to consider for a sample of Warlock’s music is from EMI with Ian Partridge and the Music Group of London directed by Neville Dilkes. This recording gives the most famous of Warlock’s works, the Capriol Suite as well as his beautiful song cycle The Curlew and other songs and carols. A second disc in this set is given over to songs by Vaughan Williams.

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Ernest John Moeran (1894 –1950) or Jack Moeran as he was known to all his friends, was done no favours by Warlock, for during those riotous years Moeran seemed to get a taste for alcohol which, combined with a shrapnel injury in the First World War, cut short Moeran’s life when he was just achieving his maturity as a composer.

The son of a vicar he was brought up in Norfolk but had a love of Ireland, the land of his forebears. It is this dual influence of Norfolk and Kerry that infuses his Symphony in G minor available in an unbeatable recording by Vernon Handley and the Ulster Orchestra from Chandos.
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Moeran’s Violin Concerto and Cello Concerto are also beautiful creations which are both available on another Chandos CD with again Vernon Handley and the Ulster Orchestra with Lydia Mordkovich (violin) and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta under Norman del Mar with Raphael Wallfisch (cello).

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Finally don’t overlook what is perhaps Moeran’s masterpiece, his Cello Sonata in A minor, dating from the last year of his life, 1947. It is again Raphael Wallfisch that gives a superb performance with John York on a Marco Polo disc. This disc also gives you Ireland’s G minor Cello Sonata as well as Edmund Rubbra’s G minor sonata.

Patrick Hadley (1899–1973) was the son of a lecturer in classics at Pembroke College, Cambridge who went on himself to become Professor of Music at Cambridge. He lived his whole life at the old family home in Heacham on the north Norfolk coast where he was a keen walker despite losing a leg in the First World War.

Matthias Bamert directs the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus with David Wilson Johnson (baritone) in a fine performance of Hadley’s Symphonic Ballad The Trees so High on Chandos. This bargain priced two CD set also has works by Phillip Sainton (1891–1967) who studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music under Frederick Corder and viola under the famous Lionel Tertis.

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Another fascinating recording that had only just recently arrived is of Hadley’s Fen and Flood a work from 1954 concerning the appalling floods of the night 31st January-1st February 1953 that took so many lives, not only in Norfolk but also across the sea in Holland. A setting of various texts it includes the words of the Superintendent of Police used during the rescue work.

Available from Albion Records, the record label for the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society this CD also includes an early choral work by Vaughan Williams himself, the Garden of Proserpine. This is a disc worth discovering for British music enthusiasts.

Alan Bush (1900–1995) born in London, was the son of a director of the manufacturing chemists, W. J. Bush & Co. He studied composition under Frederick Corder at the Royal Academy of Music and later with John Ireland.

His career was probably not helped by his outspoken Marxist beliefs. He held posts as conductor of the London Labour Choral Union and in 1936 was co-founder of the Workers' Music Association, and later its President.

His music was subject to an embargo by the establishment at the end of the war leading to Ralph Vaughan Williams refusing a BBC commission in protest. Though Vaughan Williams did not agree with Bush’s views this was typical of the man who also supported Michael Tippett as a conscientious objector, though again not agreeing with his views.

Two of his four symphonies are available on the Classico label through Amazon.

Gerald Finzi (1901–1956) was a quintessentially English composer yet he was of German Jewish decent. Born in London, and after the death of his father, the family moved to Harrogate, where Finzi began to study music at Christ Church, High Harrogate under Ernest Farrar. After the death of Farrar, Finzi studied privately at York Minster with another well known name in British music, the organist and choirmaster Edward Bairstow.

After moving to to Painswick in Gloucestershire, where he began composing, Finzi moved to London to study counterpoint with R. O. Morris, where he became friendly with R. O. Morris’ other students, Howard Ferguson and Edmund Rubbra. He was also introduced to Gustav Holst, Arthur Bliss and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

After teaching for three years at the Royal Academy of Music, the now married Finzi moved with his wife to Aldbourne, Wiltshire before eventually settling in Ashmansworth, near Newbury, where he founded the Newbury String Players, an amateur chamber orchestra which he conducted until his premature death at the age of only 55 years.

His output only numbers 40 works but within this are some works of great stature such as the cantata Dies Natalis Op.8 and his ode for tenor, chorus, and orchestra Intimations of Immortality Op. 29 available on a single CD from Hyperion with Matthew Best directing the Corydon Singers with John Mark Ainsley (tenor).

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Of his orchestral music, the Cello Concerto and Clarinet Concerto should not be missed. For the Cello Concerto I always have an affection for Raphael Wallfisch’s Chandos recording with Vernon Handley and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The coupling is another fine Cello Concerto from another British composer, Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988).

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For the Clarinet Concerto you can’t do better than Robert Plane’s fine recording for Naxos with Howard Griffiths and the Northern Sinfonia.

Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986) was born in Northampton and his father had a business selling and repairing clocks and watches. Although showing some early musical promise, he left school at the age of 14 to work in the office of one of Northampton's many boot and shoe manufacturers.

Rubbra continued his musical studies around his daily work, eventually obtaining an open scholarship to the Royal College of Music.

It is his eleven symphonies that are the backbone of his musical output but he also wrote much chamber and choral music. Richard Hickox and the National Orchestra of Wales have recorded all eleven symphonies for Chandos.

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A rather special recording of Rubbra’s Missa Cantuariensis directed by Richard Hickox in the presence of the composer has been re-issued by Chandos.

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Whilst this recording is a re-mastered copy from the original LP issue (the original tapes had become damaged beyond repair) there is something special in this recording that no other performance seems to give.

Of Rubbra’s chamber music I would look to the Naxos recordings by the marvellous Maggini Quartet.


Here you will get the four string quartets as well as the Piano Trio No.1 with Martin Roscoe (piano).

Finally I must not forget the wonderful Naxos recording by Takuo Yuasa and the Ulster Orchestra of Rubbra’s Violin Concerto coupled with the Improvisation for violin and Orchestra and the Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby.

Born in Oldham, Lancashire, Sir William WALTON (1902-1983) was the son of a music teacher and choirmaster who had been one of the first students at the Royal Manchester College of Music when it opened in 1893.

He became a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford and at the age of only sixteen became an undergraduate there. It was at Oxford that Walton became friends with Sacheverell Sitwell. Walton was sent down from Oxford in 1920 without a degree so Sitwell invited him to stay with him and his literary brother and sister, Osbert and Edith. It was to poems by Edith Sitwell that Walton set his music for Façade – An Entertainment and possibly his best known work.

There followed two symphonies, a viola concerto, violin concerto, a Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra, as well as chamber music, choral music, two operas and film music.

The first symphony has been recorded a number of times but Andre Previn’s 1966 RCA recording with the London Symphony Orchestra is still for the finest although only currently available second-hand through Amazon.

Alternatively there is Paul Daniel’s fine Naxos recording with the English Northern

Walton’s great choral work, Belshazzar’s Feast should be explored with Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. This great recording from Warner Apex has the wonderful Bryn Terfel (baritone) in a live 1994 Proms performance.

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You can get superb performances of both the violin and viola concertos on an EMI disc with Nigel Kennedy (violin) and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn.

In the next part of my survey of British music I will look at composers such as the much misunderstood Michael Tippett and two female composers, Grace Williams and Elizabeth Maconchy, before arriving at Benjamin Britten.

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