Saturday 30 June 2012

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Polish’ Rob Cowan’s choice for BBC Radio 3 Building a Library

In my blog of 3rd March 2012 ‘Tchaikovsky – the reputation they tried to destroy’ I was enthusiastic about a release by Newton Classics of Igor Markevitch’s terrific Tchaikovsky symphony cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra from the 1960’s.

On this morning’s BBC Radio 3 Building a Library Rob Cowan chose Igor Markevitch’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony as his building a library choice. However, there was only one snag in that it is only available as a download from Decca or as part of that same Newton Classics set that I had recommended in March. Rob felt, understandably, unable to recommend the Newton Classics set due to ‘drop outs’ at the start of the third symphony.

I was somewhat surprised at this and immediately went to my own copy to see if my ears were giving me trouble. Not so – I listened carefully all the through the third symphony and could find no problem whatsoever.

My next enquiry was to have been with Newton Classics so I went to their website to get an e-mail address but I found an apology posted against details of the Tchaikovsky set. This is what Newton have to say,

Please note that new masters of this album (Ref: 8802036) are currently being shipped to retailers due to a few playing gaps on the first batch of recordings. Please see your retailer to exchange your copy. We are very sorry for the inconvenience caused.

It seems then there are a few rogue copies of the set out there to be wary of but now that Newton Classics are aware of the problem you should be sure that if you do get one of these rogue copies then it can be exchanged for a good copy.
I hope that this doesn’t put anyone off buying these wonderful recordings.

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Rimsky Korsakov’s Invisible City

Perhaps the greatest orchestrator of all time, Nicholai Andreevich Rimsky Korsakov (1844-1908) was almost entirely self-taught. The third son of a Civil Governor of the Volinsky Government and nephew of Admiral Nicholai Rimsky Korsakov , it is not surprising that, in 1856, he entered the Corps of Naval Cadets.

Rimsky Korsakov had shown early musical ability and started piano lessons at the age of six. His musical interest continued and he used every available moment of his spare time to listen to and study music. There appears to have been quite a lot of spare time in his new career enabling him, in 1861, to meet Balakirev and Cui who, together with Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky Korsakov himself would go on to become what was termed ‘The Mighty Handful’ or ‘The Five’, a group representing the new Nationalist Russian School.

Rimsky Korsakov’s autobiography, ‘My Musical Life’, first published, posthumously, in 1923 gives an evocative account of these early years (available from Amazon) including a voyage on the naval clipper ‘Almaz’, first to England, where he visited Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, the Crystal Palace and Covent Garden for the opera, then to the Baltic before sailing to New York and Rio Janeiro. By this time he had already made a start on his First Symphony.

After his return to Russia, in 1865, Balakirev performed Rimsky Korsakov’s First Symphony at one of his Free School concerts, which was well received. Composition continued with his first opera ‘The Maid of Pskov’ being commenced in 1868.

In 1871 Rimsky Korsakov was offered the post of Professor of Practical Composition at the St Petersburg Conservatoire.  The Director of the Conservatoire, Mikhail Pavlovich Azanchevsky (1839 – 1881), knew that Rimsky Korsakov was effectively an amateur composer but little did he realise to what extent. In Rimsky Korsakov’s own words ‘It was not merely that I couldn’t at that time have harmonised a chorale properly, had never written a single contrapuntal exercise in my life, and had only the haziest understanding of strict fugue; but I didn’t even know the names of the augmented and diminished intervals or of the chords…in my compositions I strove after correct part-writing and achieved it by instinct and by ear.’

Despite these major concerns, Rimsky Korsakov accepted the Professorship and resigned from the Navy after which he was appointed civilian Inspector of Bands.

Rimsky Korsakov undertook to teach himself harmony and counterpoint using mainly Tchaikovsky’s text book on Harmony and treatises by Cherubini and Bellermann for counterpoint. Nevertheless he often found that he was only one step ahead of his students.

Rimsky Korsakov went on to write twelve operas that form a major part of the Russian operatic tradition. It’s a pity that his operas are not so well known as those of Mussorgsky, Borodin and Tchaikovsky. It’s true that they don’t have the same dramatic power as operas such as Boris Godunov or Prince Igor but they more than make up for that with their own special magic. Nowhere is this more so than with Rimsky Korsakov’s penultimate opera ‘The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh’.

Written between 1903 and 1906, Rimsky Korsakov and his librettist, Vladimir Belsky, had been attracted to the Kitezh legend since 1898. These were difficult years for the composer with the 1905 uprising and student protests. After a performance of Rimsky’s ‘Kashchey the Immortal’ conducted by Glazunov, there was a student demonstration verging on a revolutionary meeting where in Rimsky Korsakov’s own words ‘They called me on to the platform and began to read me addresses from different societies and associations and to make inflammatory speeches.’

Eventually the police intervened and the theatre was emptied. The police banned the next concert and the performance of any of Rimsky Korsakov’s works. The Conservatoire had already been closed due to student protests. Rimsky Korsakov was firmly on the side of the students but, badly ruffled, he resumed his ‘Record of my Musical Life’ after a twelve year break. Rimsky Korsakov continued to teach his students at his home until the Conservatoire reopened under the Directorship of Glazunov who reappointed him.

Act 1 of ‘The Invisible City of Kitezh’ was played over by Rimsky Korsakov’s future son-in-law Maximilian Steinberg at the composer’s home in November 1906. Regular Wednesday evening musical gatherings at Rimsky Korsakov’s home, 28, Zagorodny Prospect, St Petersburg began in September 1906. Such notables as Stravinsky, Taneiev, Lyadov, Glazunov, Scriabin and Cherepnin were frequent visitors.

I had the wonderful experience of visiting Rimsky Korsakov’s old house at 28, Zagorodny Prospect, now a museum, during a visit to St Petersburg in 2002. It was then a very informal museum where it was even possible to play Rimsky Korsakov’s piano.

Rimsky Korsakov desk
N.A.Rimsky-Korsakov Museum

© The Classical Reviewer

‘The Invisible City of Kitezh’ was first staged at the Maryinsky Theatre on 20th February 1907 conducted by Felix Blumenfeld and was a triumph.

Naxos Records have recently issued a live recording of ‘The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh’ with the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari conducted by Alexander Vedernikov.

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Naxos has had some considerable successes in the past with their opera recordings. I’m thinking in particular of their Rossini ‘Barber of Seville’ (8.660027-29) which was a Gramophone magazine Editor’s Choice, as was Wagner’s ‘ The Flying Dutchman’ (8.660025-26) and Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ (8.660030-31).

This new issue has the advantage of the conductor Alexander Vedernikov who was Music Director at the Bolshoi from 2001 to 2009. He has also brought a number of the Bolshoi soloists to this project. For those that haven’t heard of Cagliari, it is the capital of the island of Sardinia. The opera house in Cagliari, Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, has, in the past, attracted such artists as Tullio Serafin and Guido Cantelli as well as having associations with composers such as Respighi, Pizzetti and Wolf-Ferrari.

‘The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh’ is the story of the advancing Mongol army’s entry to Great Kitezh and the city’s subsequent miraculous survival as well as the Prince Vsevolod’s love of the forest dweller Fevroniya.

Russian soprano Tatiana Monogarova as Fevroniya is in wonderful voice in the Act 1 love duet with Vitaly Panfilov as Prince Vsevolod. This beautiful theme returns a number of times later in the opera.

The market place scene in Act 2 features a fine character tenor, Stefano Consolini as the bear tamer with Riccardo Ferrari making a creditable ‘Russian’ sounding bass as the blade singer. The female chorus is impressive in ‘Over the bridges of guilder-tree’.

There are many strengths in Act 3 of this production with Mikhail Kazakov (bass) as Prince Yuri in the aria ‘Oh glory, vain wealth’ singing to great effect. Act 4 brings some of the most captivating orchestration of the whole opera as well as some fine singing from the chorus in the chorus ‘Radiant Kingdom’ before the return of the love duet theme beautifully sung by Tatiana Monogarova.

Overall this is a fine performance and although the live recorded sound does not give as clear a detail of the orchestra as a studio recording might, it is well balanced against the chorus and soloists. There is, of course, with a live stage performance some stage noise and applause at the end of each Act.

This production is also available on DVD Naxos 2.110277-78. An extract can be seen on YouTube

I would recommend this excellent value set to all lovers of Russian opera and, indeed, Russian music in general.

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.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Orkney

I’ve just returned from a visit to Orkney where, being very fortunate with the weather, I was able to see the sort of landscape that has greatly inspired the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies since he first visited there in 1970. In fact the relative calm during my visit probably contrasted immensely with the stormy weather that often inspired Max.

The St Magnus Festival, founded by Sir Peter in 1977, doesn’t start until 22nd June but it was good to see that bookings are good with many events already sold out.

My own visit was to enjoy the landscape and ancient sites but, during my walk out to see the Old Man of Hoy, I caught sight of, Bunertoon (meaning ‘above the town’), Sir Peter’s home from 1975 until moving to Sanday a few years ago. Perched high on a cliff top above Rackwick Bay, facing the Pentland Firth, Bunertoon is a simple little croft set in an awe inspiring location.

One serious drawback to the timing of my visit was that I could not attend the premiere of Max’s Ninth Symphony at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. Luckily there will be a Proms performance on 23rd August 2012.

Reviewers of the Liverpool concert seem to find a contradiction in that this new symphony, lasting around 25 minutes, should be written for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, yet also show anger at our country’s military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given Sir Peter’s views on these conflicts and that they occurred in our present Queen’s reign, it seems to me entirely relevant. However, as I am yet to hear this new work I am in no position to make any real judgement. What I do know is that I am looking forward to the Prom performance immensely.

As for Orkney, I know that I will want to return to this magical place.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Weinberg - The forgotten composer

Even his name varies from Mieczysław Weinberg to Moishe Vainberg so I suppose it is hardly surprising that this enigmatic composer, born in 1919 to a Jewish family in Warsaw, is barely known to most people.

Mieczysław Samuilovich Weinberg (1919 – 1996) came from a musical family, his father being a well-known conductor and composer of the Yiddish theatre. Weinberg studied at the Warsaw Conservatory from the age of twelve, graduating in 1939.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Weinberg fled to the Soviet Union where he settled in Minsk and undertook further studies in composition with Vassily Zolotaryov, himself a pupil of Balakirev and Rimsky Korsakov. His family remained behind and, in his own words ‘…my entire family was killed by Hitler’s executioners…’

When Hitler invaded Russia, Weinberg had to flee again to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, finding work at the opera house. In 1943, Weinberg sent the score of his recently completed First Symphony to Shostakovich which resulted in his being invited to Moscow.

Weinberg remained in Moscow for the rest of his life earning his living as a freelance composer. He married Natalia Vovsi, the daughter of Solomon Mikhoels the actor and founder of the Moscow Jewish Theatre. Mikhoels was murdered on the orders of Stalin in 1948.

Weinberg himself was arrested in February 1953 on charges of "Jewish bourgeois nationalism.’ Shostakovich took the brave decision to write a letter to the authorities vouching for Weinberg’s honesty and talent as a composer. Fortunately Stalin died in March 1953 and Shostakovich was able to write that ‘…in the past few days M S Weinberg has returned home…’

Weinberg always seemed to be stoical, even positive, in his outlook. When looking back on the Stalin years he took the view that composers had been relatively lucky and that none had been arrested, adding the afterthought ‘…except me of course.’

His friendship with Shostakovich was one of the most important aspects of his life.  He regarded Shostakovich as his teacher saying ‘…I am a pupil of Shostakovich. Although I never had lessons from him, I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood.’

Weinberg spent his last days confined to bed by ill health, depressed by the complete neglect of his music. Ten years after his death a concert premiere of his opera The Passenger in Moscow started a posthumous revival of his music.  David Pountney staged the opera at the 2010 Bregenz Festival and restaged it at English National Opera the following year, earning considerable acclaim.

Shostakovich spoke very highly of Weinberg's music calling him ‘…one of the most outstanding composers of the present day.’

His compositions include operas, twenty six symphonies (twenty two plus four chamber symphonies), chamber music including seventeen string quartets, over forty film scores, a large number of songs and many piano works.

I first got to know Weinberg’s music through the Olympia and Russian Disc recordings of his symphonies. If you can get hold of the Olympia disc of the Violin Concerto and Fourth Symphony (no longer available but often found second-hand on Amazon there is some terrific music to be heard in great performances.

As an alternative, Naxos  have recorded Weinberg’s Violin Concerto coupled with Myaskovsky’s Violin Concerto.


Chandos have undertaken to record the complete symphonies and, after a slow start, eight of the symphonies are now available on six CDs.                             

It is often said that Weinberg’s music is heavily influenced by Shostakovich. Indeed, one commentator has even referred to it as a bad copy of Shostakovich. In my view this is completely unfair. Certainly there is often the feel of Shostakovich lurking in the background but Weinberg was very much his own man with a distinctive sound of his own.

I have just been listening to the latest issue form Chandos of Weinberg’s Symphony No.20 Op.150 and Cello Concerto Op.43.

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From the beginning with its quiet, powerful, ruminating adagio, the symphony builds through a weighty allegretto that, despite a jaunty Mahlerian trio section, doesn’t dispel the mood of bleakness, ending abruptly.

In the central intermezzo there is a lightening of mood with its mysterious shifting melody. Next comes another scherzo which starts with brass and timpani in a movement that is forthright and relentless in nature. The final lento is anguished, with a striking alto flute passage, rising to a slight climax before a decisive end.

Whilst Shostakovich is a presence in the music, as are Prokofiev and Mahler, Weinberg does have his own voice, taking the influences to new horizons. This is a fine symphony which I have played three or four times already.

The Cello concerto from 1948 commences with an intense, lyrical adagio before a dance like moderato that has a Jewish flavour and, at times, even a Spanish feel with some wonderful delicate orchestral touches.

The third movement allegro challenges the cellist in music that fairly tumbles along. The cadenza pulls in themes from earlier leading directly to the final allegro which has wistful moments around the vigorous writing, ending quietly with the return of the beautiful opening adagio theme.

The performances by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thord Svedlund are first rate and, in the Cello Concerto Claes Gunnarsson is a fine soloist.

With fine recorded sound and excellent booklet notes by David Fanning this CD is a must for anyone interested in Russian music.

Friday 1 June 2012

Masters of the King’s and Queen’s Music

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is the Master of the Queen’s Music and on 9th June 2012 Vasily Petrenko will conduct the premiere of Sir Peter Maxwell Davis’ Ninth Symphony at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall This new symphony is dedicated to Her Majesty the Queen, in celebration of her Diamond Jubilee.

So what are the origins of the title Master of the King’s or Queen’s Music? There are many and various holders of this post and some of their music has been recorded. Sources are vague about the earlier Master of the King’s Band, so I have stated where there is doubt.

The custom of English monarchs to retain, as part of their household, a band of musicians is very ancient. Edward IV had thirteen minstrels, ‘whereof some be trumpets, some with shawms and smalle pypes.’ In 1526, Henry the VIII’s band consisted of 15 trumpets, 3 lutes, 3 rebecks, 3 taborets, a harp, 2 viols, 10 sackbuts, a fife and 4 drumslades. Elizabeth Ist’s band in 1581 included trumpets, violins, flutes and sackbuts, as well as other non-specified instruments.

In 1625 Charles I gave the title Master of the King’s Musick to the director of the monarch's private musicians.  The first to hold this post was Nicholas Lanier (c.1588 –1666).

In 1660 in imitation of Louis XIV, Charles II established a band of 24 performers on violins, tenors and basses, popularly known as the ‘four and twenty fiddlers.’ This band not only played while the king was dining, but was also introduced into the Royal Chapel where, together with the gentlemen and children of the Chapel Royal, they performed odes annually composed for the King’s Birthday and New Year’s Day. After the discontinuance of such odes, they were used on the occasions of royal weddings, baptisms and other state occasions.

By 1837 the band had been reduced to a small body of wind instrumentalists, but Prince Albert reorganised it three years later. Edward VII abandoned the giving of state concerts and the band was rarely called upon to perform.

Since the reign of King George V, the position has had no fixed duties, although the Master may choose to produce compositions to mark Royal or State occasions. It is now honorary and held by a distinguished British composer from whom occasional works are commissioned.

Nicholas Lanier, (1588 –1666) was appointed in 1625. He was an English composer, singer, lutenist and painter. He was first taught by his father, John Lanier, who played the sackbut. In 1613 he composed a masque for the marriage of the Earl of Somerset jointly with Giovanni Coperario and others. He also wrote the music and made the sets for Ben Jonson's The Masque of Augurs and Lovers Made Men.

In the 1610s, Lanier was appointed as a lutenist to the King's band, also singing and playing the viol. In 1625, Lanier became the first to hold the title Master of the King's Musick. During the Commonwealth of England he lived in the Netherlands, but returned to resume his duties in 1660. Lanier died in 1666 in East Greenwich. One of his grandfather's direct descendants is said to be Tennessee Williams.

Metronome Records  have issued a fascinating disc of works by Nicholas Lanier.

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Davis Mell (1604 - 1662), an English violinist and composer was appointed in 1660. He served as a violinist under Charles I and during the Commonwealth and in 1660 became Master of the King's Band. His instrumental works include masque music and many dances for violin and bass, grouped in suites.

George Hudson (c. 1615/1620–1672) (appointed 1660?), was an English viol player, violinist and composer. Some sources name Hudson as a Master of the Kings Band but he appears to have been merely a member of the King's Private Music from 1660.

Thomas Baltzar (c. 1630 –1663) (appointed 1661?), was a German violinist and composer born in Lübeck.  In 1655 he travelled to England, leaving behind his newly attained position of Ratslutenist of Lübeck. He was employed as a private musician for Sir Anthony Cope at Hanwell House in Banbury before, in 1661, entering Charles II's service as a member of the king's private music ensemble. Again some sources refer to Baltzar as being appointed as the Master of the King’s Band but this seems unlikely.

MSR Classics have recorded his complete works for unaccompanied violin.

MS 1224

John Banister (1630 –1679) (appointed 1663), was an English composer and violinist and the son of one of the waits (municipal musicians) of the parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields. His expertise on the violin attracted the interest of Charles II, who sent him for further education to France. On his return, Charles appointed him to the post of leader of his own band, vacated by the death of Thomas Baltzar in 1663. 

Linn Records have a recording by the Palladian Ensemble that includes Divisions on a Ground by Banister. 
(also can be seen on Youtube ) 

CKD 141

Louis Grabu or Grabut, Grabue, or Grebus (1665 – died after 1693) (appointed 1666) was a Catalan-born, French-trained composer and violinist. In his youth he moved to Paris, where he was thought to have been trained by Lully. At the time of the Restoration he went to England, where Charles II appointed him as a composer for his own private music in 1665. With the death of Nicholas Lanier in 1666 he became Master of the King's Musick. The Parley of Instruments directed by Peter Holman have recorded the Incidental music for Rochester's play Valentinian and the Concert of Venus from Albion and Albanius by Grabu for Hyperion Records together with, amongst other music, a piece by John Banister.

CDA 66667

Pelham Humfrey (1647–1674) (appointed 1672?) died at the age of only 27, but in his short time strongly influenced other composers such as Henry Purcell and John Blow. He studied in Paris and later became Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, and some sources say he was jointly appointed Master of the King’s Band in 1672. He wrote many anthems, some of which were recorded by Harmonia Mundi with Romanesca and the Choir of Clare College Cambridge directed by Nicholas McGegan and available through Amazon


Thomas Purcell (d. 1682) (appointed 1672?), was Henry Purcell’s elder brother. He was also a musician and a gentleman of the Chapel Royal. He sang at King Charles II’s coronation. Some sources say he was jointly appointed Master of the King’s Band in 1672.

Dr Nicholas Staggins (d 1700) (appointed 1678), was made Master of the King's Music by Charles II in 1674. In 1682, he was granted a musical doctorate by Cambridge University and from 1684 until his death was Professor of Music at Cambridge. His work includes odes for the various birthdays of William III.

John Eccles (1668 – 1735) (appointed 1705) was born in London, eldest son of professional musician Solomon Eccles. John Eccles was appointed to the King's Private Musick in 1694, and became Master of the King's Musick in 1705. Eccles was very active as a composer for the theatre; he wrote a large amount of incidental music and songs and composed music for the coronation of Queen Anne.

Chandos have recorded Eccles’ Masque The Judgment of Paris (or the Prize Music) with the Early Opera Company conducted by Christian Curnyn.

CHAN 0759

Dr Maurice Greene (1696 –1755) (appointed 1735) was an English composer and organist. Born in London, the son of a clergyman, Greene became a choirboy at St Paul's Cathedral under Jeremiah Clarke and Charles King. He studied the organ under Richard Brind, and after Brind died, Greene became organist at St Paul's. Following William Croft’s death in 1727, Greene succeeded him as the Chapel Royal organist. In 1730, he became a Professor of Music at Cambridge University and in 1735 was appointed Master of the King's Musick. He wrote a good deal of sacred and secular vocal music, including operas and oratorios. His best known work is the anthem 'Lord, let me know mine end'.

Edward Higginbottom and The Choir of New College Oxford have recorded a CD of anthems by Maurice Greene for CRD Records

CRD 3484

Dr William Boyce (baptised 1711 – 1779) (appointed 1755) was born in London and became a choirboy at St Paul's Cathedral before studying music with Maurice Greene. He was employed as an organist at the Oxford Chape and went on to take a number of similar posts before becoming Master of the King's Musick in 1755. He became an organists at the Chapel Royal in 1758. Boyce is best known for his set of eight symphonies, his anthems and his odes.

There are many more recordings of Boyce’s music available than most of the other early Masters of the Kings Musick. Most people’s favourite works will probably be the eight symphonies Op.2. Kevin Mallon and the Aradia Ensemble have recorded a period instrument performance for Naxos


Boyce’s Trio Sonatas are attractive works which have been recorded by Hyperion on an inexpensive 2CD set featuring The Parley of Instruments directed by Peter Holman.

CDD 22063

John Stanley (1712 –1786) (appointed 1779) was an English composer and organist born in London. An accident left him almost blind, but he went on to study music from the age of seven, later under the guidance of Maurice Greene, composer and organist at St. Paul's Cathedral.

He was organist at All Hallows, Bread Street, London before becoming organist to the Society of the Inner Temple, a position which he held until his death in 1786. In 1779 Stanley succeeded William Boyce as Master of the King's Band of musicians. Alongside his concertos, cantatas and voluntaries for organ, he composed many New Year and Birthday odes for the King. His music features on a number of recordings but the much praised recording of his complete organ voluntaries played by Margaret Phillips is one to go for.


Sir William Parsons (1745/6 –1817) (appointed 1786) was an English composer and musician who became Master of the King's Musick under George III between 1786 and 1817. Following his choristership at Westminster Abbey, he sought employment abroad before returning to England. He acted as assistant director at the George Frideric Handel commemorations in Westminster Abbey in 1784 and gained a doctorate in music at Oxford University in 1790. His compositions include a number of anthems for royal occasions.

There is little of his music recorded but I have seen a Harmonia Mundi recording available from Amazon with Paul Hillier and His Majesties Clerkes featuring just one work by Parsons  The Lamentation Of A Sinner ('O Lord turne not away thy face') together with works by John Farmer, John Dowland and others. (William Parson is not to be confused with the earlier Robert Parsons c. 1535–1572)


William Shield (1748 –1829) (appointed 1817) was an English composer, violinist and violist who was born in Swalwell near Gateshead and studied music with the composer Charles Avison in Newcastle upon Tyne. Shield became a composer for Covent Garden and there he met Haydn. In 1817, he was appointed Master of the King's Musick and wrote a large number of operas, other stage works and instrumental music.

I have found a Hungaroton recording of Shield’s Trios for Strings played by the Szabadi Trió.

HCD 32669

Christian Cramer (d. 1834) (appointed 1829), born in Hannover, was a composer, arranger, musician and Master of the King's Musick between 1829 and 1834. He served under George IV and William IV. It was said that he could play all of the instruments in his orchestra to a remarkable degree.

Francois Cramer Franz or François Cramer (1772 – 1848) (appointed 1834) was an English violinist and conductor who was Master of the King's/Queen's Musick from 1837 until his death. He was born in either Mannheim or London, the son of Wilhelm Cramer and the brother of Johann Baptist Cramer a pianist admired by Beethoven The king died in 1837, and he continued as Master of the Queen's Musick to Queen Victoria. Little seems to be known about his compositions.

George Frederick Anderson (1793 –1876) (appointed 1848) born in London in 1793. He was a violinist in a variety of orchestras and in July 1820 he married the pianist Lucy Philpot, who, as Mrs Anderson, taught the piano to Queen Victoria and her children. He was a professor of music and Treasurer of the Royal Philharmonic Society, a position he held until his death. In 1848 he was appointed Master of the Queen's Music by Queen Victoria, succeeding Franz Cramer. He remained in the post until 1870; the circumstances of his departure are not known. He was the last Master of the Queen's Music to leave the post before his death, and the first since Nicholas Staggins in 1700. It is not known that he wrote any music.

Sir William George Cusins (1833 –1893) (appointed 1870) was an English pianist, violinist, organist, conductor and composer. Born in London he studied music in Brussels and later at the Royal Academy of Music under Cipriani Potter and William Sterndale Bennett. He toured as a concert pianist and composer in England, Leipzig, Berlin.

He was appointed organist to Queen Victoria's private chapel and played the violin in various orchestras in London. He became professor at the RAM and, in 1867, succeeded Sterndale Bennett as conductor of the Philharmonic Society. He was appointed Master of the Queen's Musick by Queen Victoria in 1870, succeeding Anderson, who had retired and knighted in 1892. His compositions include a Piano Concerto, an oratorio, marches and songs.

Sir Walter Parratt KCVO (1841 – 1924) (appointed 1893) was an English organist and composer, born in Huddersfield, son of a parish organist. From 1854 to 1861 he was an organist at St Paul's Church in Huddersfield and succeeded John Stainer, in 1872 at Magdalen College, Oxford.  He became Professor of Music at Oxford University in 1908, taking over from Hubert Parry. He became president of the Royal College of Organists and was knighted in 1892. In 1893 he was appointed Master of the Queen's Musick to Queen Victoria, holding the same office under Kings Edward VII and George V. There are monuments to him in the grounds of Huddersfield Parish Church and in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.

What little of Parratt’s music has been recorded is perhaps not worth buying a whole CD for, but for those interested there is a Chandos recording  entitled A Choral Festival that includes a very short work by Parratt called Confortare together with works by such composers as diverse as Brahms, Stanford, Dyson and Vaughan Williams all performed by the Choir of Westminster Abbey directed by Douglas Guest.

CHAN 6603

Sir Edward William Elgar, Baronet, OM, GCVO (1857 - 1934) (appointed 1924), the most famous holder of the post of Master of the King’s Music, was born in the small village of Lower Broadheath, outside Worcester. The son of a piano tuner and music shop owner, Elgar was almost entirely self-taught. He went on to become the first internationally recognised composer since Henry Purcell. His compositions include the choral work The Dream of Gerontius, two symphonies, a violin concerto, a cello concerto and of course the Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma).

Working outside of the musical establishment, he held no academic posts except for a brief unsuccessful period as Peyton Professor of Music at Birmingham University. He was appointed Master of the King's Music on 13 May 1924, following the death of Sir Walter Parratt.

Elgar had written works for Royal Occasions earlier in his career, but after his appointment as Master of the King's Music, he wrote very little. His Nursery Suite (1931) was written for ‘Their Royal Highnesses the Duchess of York and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. So Many True Princesses was written for the unveiling of the Queen Alexandra Memorial outside Marlborough House in London in 1932 and has been recorded by Dutton Epoch along with the re-constructed Piano Concerto.

CDLX 7148

The Nursery Suite has been recorded many times but can be heard on a Naxos CD from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Judd.

Sir Henry Walford Davies KCVO OBE (1869 –1941) (appointed 1934) was a British composer, born in Oswestry on the Wales-England border. He was a chorister at St. George's Chapel, Windsor, coming under the influence of Walter Parratt with whom he was an assistant for five years before entering the Royal College of Music in 1890, where he studied under Parry and Stanford.

Davies taught counterpoint at the RCM from 1895, also holding a number of organist posts in London. In 1919, Davies was made professor of music at Aberystwyth and from 1927 he was organist at St. George's Chapel, Windsor. In 1924, Davies became Professor of Music at Gresham College, London, this a part-time position giving public classical music lectures. A series of recordings of lectures followed in the 1920s, followed by radio broadcasts on the BBC.

Davies was knighted in 1922 and succeeded Elgar as Master of the King's Music in 1934. His compositions include 2 symphonies and the oratorio Everyman which has been recorded by Dutton Epoch with the London Oriana Choir and Kensington Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Drummond.

CDLX 7141
Sir Arnold Edward Trevor Bax, KCVO (1883 –1953) (appointed 1942) was an English composer, born in Streatham, London, into a Victorian upper-middle-class family. He was accepted to the Royal Academy of Music in 1900.

In 1911 he settled in Rathgar, Dublin where he was introduced to the intellectual circle which met at the house of the poet George William Russell. At Russell’s house, Bax met the Irish Republican Patrick Pearse, whose execution following the Easter Uprising in 1916 prompted Bax to compose several laments, the most noted being In Memoriam Padraig Pearse (1916).

With such Irish republican sympathies, Bax was then a surprising choice for knightoood in 1937, let alone his appointment as Master of the King's Musick in 1942. Bax was further honoured by appointment as a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO).

Bax was a prolific composer who wrote seven symphonies, orchestral tone poems, chamber music, piano music choral works and songs. He has been well served on CD in recent years but in connection with his appointment as Master of the King’s Music is his Coronation March (1947) and Royal Fanfare for the Wedding of Princess Elizabeth (1953) both recorded by Decca and available through Amazon with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent and the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble.

473 080-2

Sir Arthur Edward Drummond Bliss, CH, KCVO (1891 – 1975) (appointed 1953) was an English composer, born in Barnes, London, son of a businessman from Massachusetts. Bliss was educated at Bilton Grange preparatory school, Rugby and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied classics, but also took lessons in music from Charles Wood. Bliss graduated in classics and music in 1913 and then studied at the Royal College of Music. Bliss was knighted in 1950 and succeeded Bax as Master of the Queen's Music in 1953.

His compositions include his Colour Symphony as well as opera, choral music, ballet and film music, concertos and chamber and piano works. Of his music for Royal Occasions his A Song of Welcome (1944) for baritone, chorus and orchestra, with words by Cecil Day Lewis, and Welcome the Queen (1954) for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra are on an EMI disc with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by the composer.

Malcolm Benjamin Graham Christopher Williamson AO (honorary), CBE (1931 – 2003) (appointed 1975) was an Australian composer, born in Sydney who studied composition and horn at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. His teachers included Eugene Goossens In 1950 he moved to London where he worked as an organist, a proof-reader and a nightclub pianist. From 1953 he studied with Elisabeth Lutyens.

Williamson was a prolific composer at this time, receiving many commissions. Following Bliss’s death in 1975, he was appointed as Master of the Queen's Music, a surprise choice given the possible alternatives such as Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett and Malcolm Arnold.

He wrote a number of pieces connected to his royal post, including Mass of Christ the King (1978) and Lament in Memory of Lord Mountbatten of Burma (1980). His failure to complete the intended "Jubilee Symphony" for the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 1977 courted controversy and his output slowed considerably towards the end of his life due to a series of illnesses.

His compositions include choral works, symphonies, concertos and chamber music. His Royal works include Jubilee Hymn (1977), Symphony No. 4 - Jubilee (1977), Ode for Queen Elizabeth (1980) and Songs for a Royal Baby (1985). The Fourth Symphony doesn’t appear to have even been performed let alone recorded but Chandos have started a series of Williamson recordings that includes his Symphonies 1 and 5

CHAN 10406

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, CBE (born 8 September 1934) (appointed 2004) is an English composer born in Salford, Lancashire. He took piano lessons and composed from an early age.

After education at Leigh Boys Grammar School, Davies studied at the University of Manchester and at the Royal Manchester College of Music (amalgamated into the Royal Northern College of Music in 1973), where his fellow students included Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Elgar Howarth and John Ogdon. Together they formed New Music Manchester, a group committed to contemporary music. After graduating in 1956, he studied in Rome before working as Director of Music at Cirencester Grammar School from 1959 to 1962.

In 1962, he secured a Harkness Fellowship at Princeton University where he studied with Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt and Earl Kim. He then moved to Australia, where he was Composer in Residence at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide from 1965–66. After returning to Britain, he moved, in 1971, to the Orkney Islands, initially to Hoy, and later to Sanday. Orkney hosts the St Magnus Festival founded by Sir Peter in 1977.

Sir Peter was made a CBE in 1981 and knighted in 1987. He was appointed Master of the Queen's Music in March 2004. The tenure of the appointment now changed from life to ten years, giving more composers the opportunity to take up this honorary position.

Sir Peter, or Max as his friends call him, is a prolific composer whose compositions include opera, choral music, nine symphonies, concertos, chamber music including ten Naxos Quartets and piano music. Sir Peter has written a number of works for Royal Occasions which brings us back to his Ninth Symphony that will be premiered in Liverpool on 9th June 2012.

In the absence of any recordings of music for Royal Occasions, try Hyperion’s wonderful recording of the Westminster Cathedral Choir directed by Martin Baker in sacred choral works by Davies including his Mass (2002) and Missa parvula (2003).

CDA 67454
 The works on this disc will not disappoint nor will the performances.