Monday 28 May 2012

A Trombone Concerto from Finland’s Kalevi Aho

I always try to hear any new work by Finland’s Kalevi Aho but sadly I missed the premiere of his Percussion Concerto broadcast recently by the BBC.

Thankfully I managed to record BBC Radio 3’s broadcast of the UK premiere of his Trombone Concerto to listen to later.

As always with Aho, the writing for the solo instrument is at the service of the work as a whole and not merely virtuoso display.  Yet what virtuosity there was from trombonist Jorgen van Rijen. From the moment the trombone rises quietly from the orchestra there are sounds that are almost ancient and primitive. Yet Aho also brings a warmth to his melodic writing for the solo instrument.

The ancient feel to the music has a ritualistic feel in the final movement, with percussion providing rhythmic support. The way Aho blends strange trombone sounds with the other instruments of the orchestra is truly inspired.

Alexander Vedernikov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra provided excellent support in this concert that also included Shostakovich and Sibelius. Alexander Vedernikov, formerly Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre, has recently had a live recording of Rimsky Korsakov’s opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh issued by Naxos which I will feature in a future blog.

It must be difficult for BIS Records to keep up with recording Aho’s works given how prolific he is, but I do hope that they will soon record both the Percussion Concerto and this new Trombone Concerto, not to mention his recent Symphony No.15.

We should be grateful for what BIS Records have done to promote Aho’s music, but I do hope that they will soon complete the recordings of all his symphonies to date with recordings of numbers five and six.

With the constant flow of such fine works, surely Kalevi Aho must rank as one of the world’s greatest living composers.

See also:

Why does Finland continue to produce so many fine composers?

Marvellously played Chamber Symphonies from Kalevi Aho 


Thursday 24 May 2012

More Olympic opera

Since my Blog of the 13th May 2012 there is more news on performances of L’Olimpiade based on the libretto by the Italian poet Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782).

At 7.30pm on Monday 28th May 2012, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London there will be a concert performance in the form of a ‘pasticcio’ with music by many of the composers that set the libretto to music.

The Venice Baroque Orchestra will be directed by Andrea Marcon with the soloists Romina Basso (mezzo-soprano), Delphine Galou (mezzo-soprano), Ruth Rosique (soprano), Luanda Siqueira (soprano), Jeremy Ovenden (tenor) and Nicholas Spanos (countertenor).

This complete performance will use arias by Caldara, Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Leo, Galuppi, Perez, Hasse, Traetta, Jommelli, Piccinni, Gassman, Myslivecek, Cherubini, Cimarosa and Paisiello.

In my last Blog I said that more than thirty composers had used the libretto but it seems that there were more than fifty composers that set this story of friendship, loyalty and passion! Is this the greatest use of one libretto ever?

Of the composers featured in this performance only the names Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Cherubini, Myslivecek and Cimarosa will probably be known. So who were the others?

Antonio Caldara (1670 – 1736) was born in Venice the son of a violinist. He became a chorister at St Mark's in Venice, where he learned to play the viol, cello and keyboard. After posts in Mantua and Rome, he went to Vienna to serve as maestro di cappella at the Imperial Court. He wrote over 1000 works and his operas and oratorios made him a central figure in the creation of music drama.

Lionardo Oronzo Salvatore de Leo (1694 –1744) was born in San Vito dei Normanni in Italy. He became maestro di cappella in Naples and taught at the Turchini Conservatory becoming primo maestro in 1741. He composed over 60 stage works, mostly for Naples.

Baldassare Galuppi (1706 –1785) was an Italian composer, born on the island of Burano in the Venetian Republic. He worked in Florence and Venice as well as London, Moscow and St Petersburg where he was music director of Catherine the Great’s chapel. He wrote around 30 opera buffa and around 70 serious operas.

David Perez (1711–1778) was an Italian opera composer born in Naples. He held posts in the Royal Chapel in Palermo becoming maestro di cappella and later became maestro di cappella at the Portuguese court. He wrote over 35 operas.

Johann Adolph Hasse (c.1699–1783) was born in Bergedorf, Germany from a family of musicians. He studied in Italy under Alessandro Scarlatti and later became Kapellmeister to the Saxon court. Besides operas he composed oratorios and a large amount of church music.

Tommaso Michele Francesco Saverio Traetta (1727 –1779) was born in Bitonto, Italy. He studied in Naples and had his first operas staged there. He became maestro di cappella to the court in Parma and later music director to the Russian court chapel in St Petersburg. He wrote over 40 stage works.

Niccolò Jommelli (1714 –1774) was an Italian composer, born in Aversa. He studied in Naples and presented his first comic opera there. He later became Ober-Kapellmeister at the Stuttgart court as well as composing for the Lisbon court. He wrote over 100 stage works.

Niccolò Piccinni (1728 -1800) was born in Bari, Italy and was a composer of symphonies, sacred music, chamber music, and opera. He studied with Leo (above) in Naples and had operas produced there. He was second maestro di cappella at Naples cathedral before travelling to Paris where he composed French opera. His Italian operas number over 100.

Florian Leopold Gassmann (1729 –1774) was a German-speaking Bohemian opera composer who studied in Italy and worked in Venice. He later succeeded Gluck as Viennese court ballet composer. He wrote 15 operas as well as 33 symphonies.

Giovanni Paisiello (1740 –1816) was a Neapolitan composer, born in Roccaforzata, who studied in Naples where he became a leading comic opera composer becoming dramatic and then chamber composer to the King of Naples. Most of his over 80 operas are comic.

If you can’t get to the Queen Elizabeth Hall then you can hear this concert live on BBC Radio 3             
Such a novelty is well worth getting to hear.

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.

Saturday 19 May 2012

The Olympics – an opera

Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782) was an Italian poet and melodramatist but what has he got to do with the Olympics?

Well he had an interest in Greek Tragedy and studied classical authors, as well as translating and commenting on Aristotle and Horace. More to the point, he wrote an opera libretto L’Olimpiade, set at the very first Olympic Games.

More than thirty composers set this libretto to music including Pergolesi, J C Bach, Arne and Vivaldi. It was quite normal in the 18th century for composers to use the same libretto. Composers also tended to adapt their music to the demands of the particular theatre and singers. Vivaldi would often merely add to his score by pasting over a piece of paper. The overture to L’Olimpiade was slightly lengthened in this way.

If a singer had a different range to that written in the score things became slightly more complicated, often resulting in an aria being replaced as well as more extended passages of recitative. There again, if a character was only one of a number of singers he would merely ink in the notes in vertical alignment with the original notes.

Vivaldi’s L'Olimpiade is an opera in three acts premiered in Venice at the Teatro Sant'Angelo on 17 February 1734.

If you can still get a ticket, you can catch a concert performance of this opera by La Serenissima directed by Adrian Chandler at the Lufthansa Festival of Barogue Music at St. Johns Smith Square, London tonight (Saturday 19th May 2012) at 7.00pm. This is billed as the UK premiere of the work.

Alternatively, on 3rd, 5th, 9th, 14th, 22nd and  29 June 2012 Garsington Opera are producing Vivladli’s L’Olimpiade conducted by Laurence Cummings . Set in the beautiful surroundings of the Wormsley Estate, home of the Getty family, in an expanse of rolling parkland, complete with lake and deer, secluded  by the wooded slopes that enclose it, this is the ideal opera venue.

If you can’t get to either, or just want a recording of L’Olimpiade, then Rinaldo Alessandrini with his vibrant Concerto Italiano on Opus 111 can provide the answer.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

The genius of Brahms with Emma Johnson

Brahms is surely recognised as one of the great composers of all time so why is it that Sir Thomas Beecham is alleged to have referred to him as ‘…not that old bore.’

Philip Hale of the Boston Herald is once said to have proposed that there should be an inscription over the doors of Boston Symphony Hall reading ‘Exit in case of Brahms.’

The Wagner and Brahms factions in his own day were more the product of such people as Eduard Hanslick, the music critic of the Neue Freie Presse, who, whilst ardently supporting Brahms, vehemently disliked the music of Wagner. This factionalisation didn’t necessarily do Brahms any favours.

Brahms conformed to the classical standards of form and structure which his enemies said made him conservative and boring.

It’s true that the symphonies and perhaps the German Requiem can be performed in a way that can make them sound dull. But Brahms was an emotional man whose music, in the right hands, is just as emotional as any other. This is particularly so in the wonderful late pieces, the two Clarinet Sonatas Op.120.

Brahms’ last four chamber works featured the clarinet. The Clarinet Trio in A minor Op.114, the Quintet in B minor for Clarinet and String Quartet Op.115 and the two Clarinet Sonatas Op.120.

We owe the principal clarinettist of the Meiningen orchestra, Richard Mühlfeld, a debt of gratitude for these pieces for, though Brahms was fond of the clarinet, it was the polish and sensitivity of Mühlfeld’s playing that inspired these works.

Visiting Meiningen in 1891 to hear the orchestra under its new conductor, Fritz Steinbach, he first heard Mühlfeld’s playing. Once the sonatas had been published Brahms presented his autograph manuscripts to Mühlfeld with the dedication ‘To Richard Mühlfeld, the master of his beautiful instrument, in sincerely grateful remembrance.’

So, coming to a new recording from Nimbus Alliance of Emma Johnson and John Lenehan, I was looking forward to hearing how they would perform these works.

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I was not disappointed, as I must say straight away, that these performances have everything you could wish for, with playing of supreme mastery, at turns sensitive and poetic, following every nuance and dynamic. There is a very distinctive sound to Emma Johnson’s playing that is immediately beguiling.

The first movement, Allegro appassionato, of the first Clarinet Sonata in F minor provides some fiery playing, never strident, the melodic flow seamlessly played. In the Andante un poco Adagio there are the most touchingly quiet and gentle passages played exquisitely. It is Emma Johnson’s ability to bring out so many different shades of tone that is astounding.

I defy anyone not to be totally beguiled by the playing of the third movement with its lively ländler style Allegretto grazioso before the rousing rondo finale.

In contrast to the first Clarinet Sonata, the second Clarinet sonata in E flat has a softer quality to the opening, a gently undulating melody in which Emma Johnson brings a warmth and beauty and, at times, passion.

In the Allegro appassionato-Sostenuto again there are wonderfully controlled dynamics following every ebb and flow of the music. Slowly building from a thoughtful andante, the final allegro, in variation form, receives some spectacularly virtuoso playing.

This generously filled disc also has a wonderful performance of Mendelssohn’s early Clarinet Sonata in E flat written in 1824 when the composer was just 15 years of age. It was the following year that he would write his marvellous E-flat major   Octet but this sonata has much of the same confidence of that work.

The gentle opening soon turns to a light and vibrant theme with some intricate music superbly played by both Emma Johnson and John Lenehan. The second movement opens with the clarinet alone before being joined by the piano with some beautiful and sensitive playing from John Lenehan before a finale that dashes along with playing of enormous bravura.

Schuman’s Phantasiestucke for clarinet and piano Op.73 completes this terrific disc with a wonderful performance that brings out the melodic beauty of this attractive piece.

Emma Johnson and John Lenehan are perfectly attuned to each other’s playing, with John Lenehan providing an equally memorable contribution to these performances.

The recording is finely detailed and there are excellent notes from Emma Johnson.

If you already have a recording of the Brahms Clarinet Sonatas then this new issue will make you fall in love with them all over again. If you haven’t a recording then this is the one to get.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Thursday 10 May 2012

Celebrating British Music – Part 2

It was the next generation that totally put paid to the accusation that Britain was ‘a country without music’. In 1899 Edward Elgar (1857-1934) had his first big success with the Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) putting him on the national stage.

His great choral work of 1900, The Dream of Gerontius, gave him an international reputation. His first symphony, of 1908, was premiered by Hans Richter who called it ‘…the greatest symphony of modern times...’ adding somewhat unnecessarily ‘…and not only in this country…’   The Manchester Morning Post critic described it as ‘…a masterpiece such as no other British hand has yet produced.’

Apart from a handful of violin lessons Elgar was entirely self-taught yet after that breakthrough with the Enigma Variations and Dream of Gerontius, he went on to write the other great choral works The Apostles and The Kingdom, as well as two great symphonies, a violin concerto, cello concerto and the late chamber works.

Of the recordings of the two symphonies, Sir John Barbirolli on EMI rates extremely highly as does, of course, Sir Adrian Boult.



For those who want to hear Elgar himself conducting the symphonies, Naxos has issued them on two discs.


Recorded electrically between 1927 and 1932 they also include his orchestral work Falstaff and the Cello concerto played by Beatrice Harrison. 

Of the recordings of the Dream of Gerontius we are again spoilt for choice but I suppose that I will always return to Barbirolli’s 1964 recording with Richard Lewis Kim Borg and the incomparable Janet Baker.

And what about those Variations? Well if I had to be pushed to choose just one recording then it would have to be Boult on EMI.


The next generation of British composers were in a very different mould to their predecessors. It is true that Stanford had much to do with producing such a fine number of them that included Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

The son of a clergyman he was descended from the Wedgwoods and the Darwins. His Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910) was a turning point in British music and greatly affected composers such as Herbert Howells and Ivor Gurney. His cycle of nine symphonies is among the greatest by any British composer. His choral works such as Dona Nobis Pacem (1936) and Sancta Civitas (1925) are amongst his finest works. Though influenced by English folk music as well as Tudor music, Vaughan Williams went on to forge an entirely personal style.

His nine symphonies have been recorded many times but surely the finest set of all is Vernon Handley’s on EMI available from Amazon as a 7 CD set that also includes other Vaughan Williams gems such as Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Serenade to Music (written For Sir Henry Wood’s Jubilee) and Flos Campi.

Of his choral music Sancta Civitus and Dona Nobis Pacem stand high, particularly in Richard Hickox’s EMI recording.


Vaughan Williams’ great friend Gustav Holst (Gustavus Theodore von Holst) (1874-1934) is, of course, known mainly for his orchestral suite The Planets written in 1916 and first performed by Sir Adrian Boult.

However, for those who haven’t looked further, his other orchestral works such as St Pau’ls Suite, Somerset Rhapsody and Ballet music from the Perfect Fool should be heard. The powerful Egdon Heath inspired by Hardy’s landscape should not be missed. Of his choral works the First Choral Symphony and The Cloud Messenger are fine works.

After the 1918 premiere of The Planets, Holst inscribed Adrian Boult’s copy of the score with ‘… this copy is the property of Adrian Boult who first caused the Planets to shine in public and thereby earned the gratitude of Gustav Holst." Given this, I must chose Sir Adrian’s 1978 EMI recording.

Of recordings of other works, David Lloyd-Jones has made a fine recording for Naxos of the Somerset Suite, Egdon Heath and Hammersmith with Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Also on Naxos is Howard Griffiths and the English Sinfonia in the St Pauls Suite, Brook Green Suite and Concerto for two violins.

Frederick (Fritz) Delius (1862–1934 was of German stock but born in Bradford. However, his travels to Florida and Norway before settling in rural France effectively set him apart from other British composers.

Despite this, it was Sir Thomas Beecham who first championed Delius and it is to his recordings that I first look. EMI have issued some wonderful stereo recordings on a single CD that are a must for any admirer of Delius.


This fine recording includes Brigg Fair, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Summer Evening, Summer Night on the River and A Song Before Sunrise.

Of other recordings try Vernon Handley on EMI who gives us Brigg Fair, The Walk to the Paradise Garden, Summer Night on the River and A Song of Summer.


Of the lesser known composers of this era we should not forget Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946), not only a fine conductor but a composer of individuality. The conductor, the late Vernon Handley, has recorded many orchestral works by Bantock on six CDs from Hyperion. Chandos have also issued his recording of the huge choral work Omar Khayyam covering no less than three discs.

All six of Vernon Handley’s orchestral CD’s for Hyperion have been issued in one bargain priced box.

There is some terrific music in this set, outstandingly conducted by Vernon Handley with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Just listen out for the Celtic Symphony featuring no less than six harps.

Cyril Rootham (1875–1938) was born in Redland, Bristol and, after studying at Cambridge eventually returned there becoming Director of Music at St. John’s College and later University Lecturer and conductor of the Cambridge University Music Society.

Rootham wrote an opera, The Two Sisters (1918–21) as well as numerous orchestral works including two symphonies.

His Symphony No.1 has been recorded for Lyrita by Vernon Handley and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and also includes works by Bantock and Josef Holbrooke.

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A recording of choral works by Rootham appears on EMI conducted by Richard Hickox with the Northern Sinfonia of England, the Sinfonia Chorus and BBC Nothern Singers. The works include For the Fallen and the City in the West.


Rutland Boughton (1878-1960) was a friend of Bantock who also gave the rising composer support. It was Boughton who, in 1914, founded the Glastonbury Festival. This, as you would expect, had no connection whatsoever with the Glastonbury Rock Festivals of today.

The idea was to found an English version of Bayreuth where English music drama could be performed in favourable circumstances. Boughton’s most famous music drama The Immortal Hour had performances at Glastonbury and later had the longest run in London of any British opera. His third symphony is also a very fine work.

Vernon Handley has recorded the Third symphony for Hyperion in a performance that came as a revelation, such is the quality of this symphony.

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Hyperion has also recorded The Immortal Hour with Alan G Melville, the English Chamber Orchestra and a fine cast.

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Dutton Epoch have also done Boughton proud with a recording of his Third symphony as well as orchestral works and, most recently, the music drama The Queen of Cornwall.


It is difficult to place William Havergal Brian (1876-1972) in any particular era given that he rose to fame whilst Elgar was still alive and later, in obscurity, went on to write thirty two symphonies. His enormous Gothic Symphony has now been recorded more than once.

For more on this composer look at my blog of 19th March 2012. All I will mention here is his mammoth Gothic Symphony recorded by Naxos. Although there are other recordings now available this one from Ondrej Lenárd directing The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, with several choirs and soloists is a terrific

Joseph Holbrooke (1878–1958) son of a music hall musician and teacher and father of the well known English bassoonist Gwydion Brooke, wrote no less than eight symphonies, a number of tone poems, two piano concertos and chamber music.

His Symphony No.4 has been recorded on Dutton Epoch by George Vass and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and includes his Cello Concerto as well as his orchestral fantasie The Pit and the Pendulum.

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This CD was one of the most interesting finds that I have recently made on Dutton Epoch.

In my next British music blog, I will move from Frank Bridge to such composers as Ireland, Bax and Howells.