Saturday 23 June 2012

Celebrating British Music – Part 5

Continuing this survey of British music we come to Sir Lennox Berkeley (12 May 1903–1989) Born in Oxford, he studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger where he became acquainted with Francis Poulenc, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger and Albert Roussel.

He was closely associated with Benjamin Britten and worked for the BBC during the Second World War. He went on to become Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. His son Michael Berkeley (b.1948) is also a composer as well as broadcaster.

As well as four symphonies, Lennox Berkeley has written in most genres including opera, choral, chamber and piano music. Chandos have issued a number of CD’s that usefully combine the music of both Lennox and Michael Berkeley on 6 CDs. Whilst all of these are well worth collecting volumes 1 and 3 are particularly attractive.

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These two discs give you Lennox Berkeley’s First and Fourth Symphonies as well as Michael Berkeley’s Cello Concerto, Concerto for Horn and String Orchestra and Garden of Earthly Delights all conducted by Richard Hickox with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998) was born in London but the family soon moved to Wetherden in rural Suffolk. Financial difficulties eventually forced his parents to sell their home and live in a hotel owned by them in Cannes. In time, this too was sold and the family lived an unsettled existence moving around Europe.

Tippett was educated in Britain and went on to study at the Royal College of Music. His deeply-held humanitarian and pacifist beliefs very much influenced his life and his music, no less so than in his first great success, his oratorio A Child of Our Time completed in 1941 and first performed in 1944.  His Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli from 1953, now one of Tippett's most popular works, attracted criticism at the time. Tippett’s first opera A Midsummer Marriage, performed at Covent Garden in 1955 received criticism mainly due to a libretto that seemed at best confusing. Tippett went on to write four more operas as well as four symphonies, five string quartets, four piano sonatas as well as many other choral and orchestral works. By the 1960’s Tippett’s musical language had moved away from the intensely lyrical music of A Midsummer Marriage to a more abrasive style. However, in his late works such as the Triple Concerto and Rose Lake we see a synthesis of both styles.

Anyone wanting to get to know Tippett’s music would do well to investigate what is perhaps his masterpiece A Child of our Time. To some extent I am torn between Richard Hickox’s fine Chandos recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Tippett’s own recording on Naxos with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with the wonderful Faye Robinson among the fine soloists.

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Richard Hickox has also recorded Tippett’s orchestral music for Chandos amongst which there are two particular discs that deserve particular attention.

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The first of these discs has the First Symphony and Piano Concerto and the second disc has the Fourth Symphony and the wonderful Fantasia of a Theme of Corelli all with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Howard Shelley (piano).

The son of a doctor, Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971) was born in Lancashire. After a musical education at home and attempts by his parents to encourage him into a number of alternative professions, he eventually studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music. After graduation he was, for a while, a pianist and teacher at Dartington Hall in Devon.

His compositions include three symphonies, a number of concertos including two each for piano and violin, chamber, instrumental and piano music. Naxos have recorded much of his orchestral music, including the three symphonies, on five CDs.

The symphonies are conducted by David Lloyd-Jones with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. A fine recording of his three string quartets are also on Naxos with the Maggini Quartet.

William ALWYN (1905-1985) was a prolific composer of film music from which until 1961 he made his living. His compositions include five symphonies, four operas, several concertos and string quartets as well as piano music. The symphonies are well worth getting to know and have been recorded by both Lyrita  with the composer conducting and by Chandos conducted by Richard Hickox.

It must be the composers own recordings of these works that should be investigated first. All five symphonies come on just 2 CDs.
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Arnold COOKE (1906-2005) was born at Gomersal, Yorkshire the son of a carpet manufacturer. At the age of eight he began playing the piano and later on at Repton School, he took up the cello and was taught composition. On leaving Repton he entered Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge in 1925 to read History where, after gaining his BA degree, he switched to the music course. He later became professor of composition, harmony and counterpoint at the Royal Manchester College of Music and eventually became professor of harmony, counterpoint, orchestration and composition at the Trinity College of Music.

His compositions range across opera, choral, six symphonies, chamber music, piano and organ music. His Symphony No. 3 in D is available on a Lyrita   disc, conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite, that also gives you recordings of Havergal Brian’s Symphonies 6 and 16.
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Grace WILLIAMS (1906-1977) was born in Barry, near Cardiff and won a scholarship to Cardiff University. She later attended the Royal College of Music, London, where she was taught by Ralph Vaughan Williams. She taught for a while in London but, after health problems, she returned to her native Wales.

Her compositions, all written in a distinctive style, include choral works, numerous orchestral works including two symphonies (the first withdrawn) and concertos.

It is Lyrita  that have issued two CD’s of her works and I would wholeheartedly recommend them to lovers of British music. The first disc includes Grace Williams’ best known work, Sea Sketches, as well as her Trumpet Concerto and Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Rhymes. The other CD has her Second Symphony as well as her wonderful Fairest of Stars, a setting of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Various Orchestras are conducted by Vernon Handley, Sir Charles Groves and David Atherton.

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Another female composer of note was Dame Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994). Born to Irish parents in Hertfordshire, she grew up in rural Ireland, playing the piano and writing music from the age of six. She studied at the Royal College of Music with Vaughan Williams, who remained a lifelong friend.  However, she was more attracted by the European modernism of composers such as Bartók and Janáček, She studied in Prague before returning to England where her music was taken up by Henry Wood.

Maconchy was greatly in demand as a composer amongst the leading professional ensembles, orchestras and soloists of the day. She chaired the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, was President of the Society for the Promotion of New Music, and in 1987 was appointed Dame of the British Empire.

Besides her 14 string quartets, she wrote operas, choral works orchestral works and songs. The complete string quartets have been issued by Forum Records featuring the Hanson, Bingham and Mistry Quartets. This is available from Amazon  A CD of her orchestral works from Lyrita includes a Symphony for Double String Orchestra and Serenata Concertante for Violin and Orchestra.

Like Grace Williams, Daniel Jenkyn Jones (1912 –1993), was a Welsh composer who also possessed considerable skills as a linguist and literary critic. Born in Pembroke, the son of a bank manager, he was a friend of the poet Dylan Thomas. After gaining a first-class honours degree in English Literature, he went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London.  After studies abroad, at the outbreak of the Second World War he was recruited as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park, eventually decoding Russian, Rumanian and Japanese messages.

In addition to thirteen symphonies, he wrote eight string quartets, opera, choral works, several concertos and orchestral overtures. Five of his symphonies have been recorded by Lyrita with various orchestras conducted by Sir Charles Groves and Bryden Thomson. The first CD has symphonies 4, 7 and 8 and the second CD gives you symphonies 6 and 9 together with his cantata The Country Beyond the Stars.

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A new talent arose before the second world war when Benjamin BRITTEN (Lord Britten of Aldeburgh) (1913-1976) started appearing on the musical scene. Britten was born in Lowestoft, the son of a dentist. He showed very early promise before studying with Frank Bridge then with John Ireland at Royal College of Music.

Britten and his life-long partner, the tenor Peter Pears, spent the first part of the Second World War in America before returning to England. It was the premiere of his first opera, Peter Grimes at Sadler's Wells in 1945, based on the writings of Suffolk poet George Crabbe, that brought Britten his first great success. Britten founded the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. He went on to compose many more operas as well as orchestral music, chamber music and songs. His later collaboration with the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich that produced the late masterpieces such the three Cello Suites.

The recording of Peter Grimes that must rank above all others is Britten’s Royal Opera House recording from Decca with Peter Pears in the title role created for him.

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Britten’s War Requiem was written for the 1962 consecration of the newly reconstructed Coventry Cathedral, now celebrating its Golden Jubilee. Although the composers made a fine recording of this work himself I would still recommend Richard Hickox’s superb performance in an award winning recording from Chandos coupled with an earlier work, his Sinfonia da Requiem.

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For a recording of Britten’s Variations of a Theme of Frank Bridge and his well known Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra you can’ do bettrer that Stuart Bedford with the London Symphony Orchestra and the English Chamber Orchestra reissued on Naxos.

For the Festival of Britain in 1951 three prominent British composers were commissioned to write operas. Ralph Vaughan Williams provided his opera The Pilgrim’s Progress, Benjamin Britten composed his opera Billy Budd and George Lloyd wrote his third opera John Socman.

George Walter Selwyn Lloyd (1913-1998) was born in St Ives, Cornwall.  He studied violin with Albert Sammons and composition with Harry Farjeon. His first symphony was written when he was just 19 years of age and soon followed by two more symphonies. His first opera Iernin was initially produced in Penzance but soon transferred to the Lyceum in London where it had one of the longest runs of any British opera. His second opera The Serf was produced at Covent Garden in 1938.

Lloyd’s wartime injuries were such that it took a long time for him to recover, however, his convalescence with his Swiss wife Nancy, in Switzerland led to his fourth and fifth symphonies and, on his return to Britain the Festival of Britain opera commission. The stress of finishing the opera on time and problems with the production led to further ill health and his move to Dorset to run a smallholding.

Lloyd continued to compose and, in 1969, returned to music full time. His late works became increasingly popular and he gained a large and loyal following.

He wrote choral music, twelve symphonies, four piano concertos, two violin concertos, orchestral works, music for wind and brass band, chamber music, piano music and songs as well as the three operas.

Most of George Lloyd’s music has been recorded by Albany Records including all of his symphonies, conducted by the composer, from which I would particularly mention the fine Seventh Symphony.

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Many, including myself, consider that his Symphonic Mass is his masterpiece. A recording of this magnificent work is available form Albany Records.

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George Lloyd’s last two works are his fine Cello Concerto recorded by the Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Allan Miller with Anthony Ross (cello) and the beautiful Requiem for countertenor, choir and organ in memory of Diana Princess of Wales recorded by the Exon Singers conducted by Matthew Owens

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In the sixth and final part of this survey of British music I will be looking at late 20th Century composers such as Malcolm Arnold and Robert Simpson through to contemporary composers such as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and James MacMillan.


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