Saturday, June 25, 2016
Ralph Vaughan Williams and Friends Weekend at St John's Smith Square, a glorious three-day celebration of British music. This follows on the success of previous SJSS weekends devoted to Schubert and Schumann. Curated by Anna Tilbrook, the RVW/SJSS weekend features The Holst Singers, James Gilchrist, Philip Dukes, and Ensemble Elata. The Weekend runs from 7th to 9th October, but get tickets soon as they will sell fast. There's no clash with the Oxford Lieder Festival which starts the following weekend, this year featuring Schumann. Friday 7th at 7.30 : The Holst Singers conducted by Benjamin Nicholas launch the festival on Friday evening: Parry I was Glad, Stanford Beatoi quorum via, W Lloyd Weber, Howells Requiem, Holst Nunc Dimittis, and RVW's Lord thou hast been our refuge Saturday 8th at 1 pm : RVW Songs of Travel, Elgar Salut d'amour, Frank Bridge Oh, that it were so, Rebecca Clarke Passacaglia, Quilter : Go, lovely Rose, Bantock Hebrew Melody, Ivor Gurney Ludlow and Teme Saturday 8th 4 pm : The Folk Connection Quilter I will go with my father a-ploughing, Percy Grainger : Molly on the Shoree, RVW : Along the Field, Six Studies in English Folk Song, Winter's Willow and Linden lea, Rebecca Clarke : I'll bid my heart be still, Grainger: Handel in the Strand. Saturday 8th at 7.30 : The Spiritual Realm RVW : Rhosymedre, Four Hymns, Orpheus with his lute, Sky above the roof, Silent Noon, Piano Quintet, Finzi : Til the Earth Outwears, Elgar : Chanson de matin, Chanson de nuit (photo above Finzi and RVW, courtesy Finzi Trust) Sunday 9th at 11.30 : The Shadow of War : Bliss Elegaic Sonnet, Ireland The Darkened valley, Butterworth : Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, Elgar : Piano Quintet Sunday 9th at 3 pm : The Shadow of War II : Ireland ;The Soldier, Blow out, you bugles, Spring Sorrow, Elgar : Sospiri, Gurney: Severn Meadows, Lights Out, Sleep, In Flanders, By a Bierside, Howells : Elegy, RVW : On Wenlock Edge
Aldeburgh and Oliver Knussen, so closely connected that it's always an occasion when Ollie conducts the BBC SO at Snape. Ostensibly, the theme of this programme commemorated the First World War, but frankly it didn't need an artificial angle. In true Britten, Aldeburgh and Knussen tradition, this concert was forward looking and adventurous, working very well on its own musical terms. Britten and Aldeburgh have always been outside the mainstream of British tradition, so Elgar isn't heard much here, and the oratorios and major works don't suit the Maltings. Bach, however, is an Aldeburgh staple, since Britten passionately believed in links between the baroque and the modern. So for a change, Elgar's transcriptions of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in C minor. Bach often gets tellingly transcribed in every era, so transcriptions offer a glimpse into the transcriber's style. Elgar's Bach is stately, an ocean liner rather than a doughty skiff. Not top-notch Elgar but pleasant enough. It served, however, to magnify the originality of George Butterworth to whom Ralph Vaughan Williams dedicated his Second Symphony, an acknowledgement that, without Butterworth's vision, RVW might not have achieved so much so soon. Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad is based on the same Housman sources that inspired both Butterworth and RVW's wonderful song cycles. RVW orchestrated his songs, but Butterworth created something entirely new for his orchestral Shropshire Lad. You can recognize echoes of the songs, but the whole is a quasi-symphonic work in its own terms, sophisticated ideas expressed with clarity and originality. Because Knussen doesn't do mainstream "English" music, he approached Butterworth without baggage. This Shropshire Lad sounded remarkably fresh. Definitely not "cowpat school", but a contender for inclusion in the new age of music that was fast developing all over Europe at the time the piece was written. What might British music have been had Butterworth survived the war? With this imaginative Butterwoth still resonating in the mind, Gary Carpenter's Willie Stock didn't have much chance. Even on relistening to the broadcast, it's a work that is wonderful in concept, though less so in execution. Willie Stock was an ordinary soldier, killed in the trenches, so Carpenter adapts popular song of the time, deconstructing and fragmenting the tunes, just as the men in the trenches were blown to bits. It's thoughtful, and one feels close to poor Willie Stock but it might be best heard as part of a documentary, rather than a concert piece. Elliott Carter's Sound Fields replaced at short notice a Carter work for baritone and orchestra. Sound Fields was born when Knussen and Carter were having lunch together at Tanglewood in 2007. Since Carter wrote so well for string quartet, it’s surprising that this is his first work for string orchestra. Yet, despite the larger numbers involved, it’s diaphanous, a gently wavering sequence of chords. A single chord is played by twelve sub-groups in the orchestra, achieving startling density by simple, elegant means. Sound Fields is slow and smooth, the chords gradually enfolding out of each other. It starts with slow timbred cello, evolving towards a simpler, barely audible final chord, also cello, that seems to evaporate into nothingness. All in barely four minutes. Charlotte Bray is an Aldeburgh regular, and good, so her Stone Dancer was eagerly anticipated. It was inspired by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's Red Stone Dancer (1913-14) when western art was learning from non-western "primitive" art. Picasso, Braque, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and more. Thus the figure of a dancer, whose métier is fluid movement, depicted as solid, inanimate object. What comes over, though, is physical presence and strength. Thus Charlotte Bray's Stone Dancer moves in a series of smaller movements, each held long enough that we feel the force behind the ideas before moving on. This reminded me a lot of Rebecca Saunders's monumental sculptures in sound, which come vividly to life in performance. British music is most certainly alive and well, without a whisper of twee. And so to Alban Berg's Three Piece for Orchestra Op 6 from the same period as Gaudier-Brzeska's sculpture. Again, the idea of dance and physical forces expressed through music. In the first "piece", the Praeludium, the orchestra growls, as if invoking primitive powers. The central piece is even called Reigen referring to dance. Ländler and waltzes appear fleetingly, caught up in the swirl of the larger flow, as if the orchestra was like time itself, pulling things along in its wake. Thus the wild finale, where dance figures coarsen into march: the idea of movement made brutal Knussen and the BBCSO defined the sparkling touches in the piece so well that the contrasts with low winds, wailing brass and timpani felt savagely disconcerting.
The longevity of the British monarchy is currently in the spotlight, with the official birthday of the 90-year-old Queen Elizabeth II being marked tomorrow and Prince Philip, her husband, celebrating his 95th birthday today, 10 June. The royal ceremonial displays for which Britain has become renowned rely to a large extent on the grandeur of the music prepared for these events. This puts one in mind of those holders of the royally granted title Master of the King’s/Queen’s Music(k)—the anachronistic final letter was dropped on the appointment of Edward Elgar to the position in 1924. So let’s devote this week’s blog to profiling a few of those royally recognised musicians and hearing some extracts from their music. Established by Charles I in 1626, the post is currently held by Judith Weir, who receives an annual stipend of £15,000 and very little else by way of expectations attached to the position. She was appointed in 2014 for a fixed term of ten years—the second incumbent to be engaged on this arrangement—and while having no fixed duties, she has said that she’ll use the influence the role carries to encourage as many singers, instrumentalists and composers to achieve their musical potential, not least children. Although she’s the first female to hold the title, she is still Master of the Queen’s Music, and not a Mistress of all she surveys. Here’s part of her Illuminare, Jerusalem (8.557965 ), based on the text of a 15th-century Scottish poem. It was written for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and first performed at their world-famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, 1985. Trawling through past holders of the post, we find that not all of them were composers or even distinguished musicians, and many have certainly not lived on as household names. An exception is Judith Weir’s immediate predecessor, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (Max), who contributed to his nation’s reputation for eccentricity by being a republican who accepted the appointment to a royal household. He was subsequently won over, we are told, by Queen Elizabeth’s monarchic charm. Max also held the post for a stipulated decade, from 2004-2014, and put in an unassuming appearance at the 2011 Royal Wedding of William and Kate with his Farewell to Stromness (8.572408 ), one of his most familiar pieces with its gentle evocation of the old whaling port on the Scottish Orkney Islands; the composer himself is the pianist on this recording. Anyone familiar with the music used at past coronations could be forgiven for assuming that the composers of some of the items performed were actually holders of the royal appointment. Not so. Think of the immensely popular anthem I was glad when they said unto me (8.572104 ) by Sir Hubert Parry. Composed in 1902 for the coronation of Edward VII, it has since become a traditional feature of coronation services. And it even made an appearance at the 2011 wedding of William and Kate; also at that of Charles and Diana in 1981. The Master of the King’s Music at the time of the first performance of Parry’s anthem, however, was Sir Walter Parratt, an organist, academic and accomplished chess player who served under three monarchs but hardly left a huge musical imprint on history. Edward VII’s coronation was adorned not only with Parry’s tremendous anthem, but also by Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (8.554161 ), which the composer adapted for the occasion. But Elgar had to wait another 23 years, until he was 68, before he was appointed Master of the King’s Music by George V which, listening to this extract from his famous march , came not a moment too soon. William Walton’s Crown Imperial (8.555869 ), first performed at the coronation of George VI in 1937, is another piece that seems to exude the hand of a Master of the King’s Music (and it led to the commission of Orb and Sceptre (9.80308 ) for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953). But Walton was apparently relieved not to be invited to take up the title on the death of Sir Arthur Bliss in 1975. It went instead, controversially, to a non-Briton, the Australian composer Malcolm Williamson, raising establishment eyebrows that said “told you so” when Williamson failed to finish a work intended to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. The resultant royal displeasure cast a long shadow. To let in a little light, here’s a movement from his English Eccentrics Choral Suite (8.557783 ). Titled A Traveller, it’s about a mysterious woman who claimed to be Princess Caraboo of Jevasu in the East Indies but turned out to be no more than Mary Baker, a servant girl from Devonshire (sic). If you’re an organist, there’s a piece that possibly sits in your pile of pre-service favourites titled Solemn Melody (8.225048 ), which was written by Henry Walford Davies, a man whom you possibly never knew held the title of Master of the King’s Music, from 1936 to 1941. To end today’s blog we say Happy Birthday to Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip while listening to part of the orchestral version of Walford Davies’ Solemn Melody .
Roderick Williams and Susie Allan gave the world premiere of A Swift Radiant Morning commissioned for theThree Choirs Festival. Listen here, because it's an interesting work that extends the canon of British song. "A swift radiant morning" aptly describes Charles Hamilton Sorley, a young man of outstanding promise, killed by a sniper at Loos, seven months short of his 21st birthday. At that age, few fulfil their potential, but C H Sorley must have been quite a personality. In this photo he stares at the camera without flinching, unfazed by the knowledge that he was going to war. We can see why Sorley's father said "he looked upon the world with clear eyes , and the surface did not deceive him". Sorley was in Trier when war was declared in 1914. On his return to England, he did his duty and joined the Suffolk Regiment . Yet in his poem To Germany, he writes of war with maturity way beyond his years. The poem is worth reading because it shows his inner strength. He could resist the hate games around him. This lucid intelligence marks him out as a person with vision. Notice too his direct, yet highly distinctive, way with words. How he would have relished the freedoms of the 1920's and 1930's. Many good poets were destroyed by war - Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney, but John Masefield said that Sorley was the greatest loss. In A Swift Radiant Morning, Rhian Samuel (b 1944) sets two poems and four texts by Sorley, which has a bearing on her musical conception. Sorley left only 37 complete poems, but a large body of letters. They make fascinating reading, since Sorley was an acute observer and processed ideas with great originality. Here's a link to the full collection of letters published in 1916. Letters are like a conversation, where one party speaks and the other responds. The voice leads, but the piano comments, unobtrusively. Sorley's texts are so expressive that the piano can't quite compete, but that's no demerit. Samuel respects Sorley's syntax and turns of phrase, editing the longer texts with sensitivity. Roderick Williams is an ideal interpreter, since he has the uncanny ability to make what he sings feel personal and direct. A natural match for CH Sorley ! At times, Samuel forces the voice above its natural range. Williams manages extremely well, but I wonder if this cycle could be transposed for tenor. A Swift Radiant Morning is a well-crafted, sensitive work which deserves attention, and not just because the subject himself was so singular. I've subscribed to a source which features a lot of Rhian Samuel's work. Lots worth listening to. At Hereford, Roderick Williams and Susie Allan also did Tim Torry's The Face of Grief (2003) to poems by Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) but the setting is minimal and the poems not in the same league as Sorley's. Please also read my piece on the rest of Roderick Williams's recital, which highlighted Elgar's Sea Pictures, in the piano version, transposed for baritone.
Her Majesty the Queen, who has turned 90, has allowed BBC Radio 2 to publish her ten favourite pieces of music (below). All of them are pop songs or church hymns. No great surprises there. But in a recent award of the Queen’s Medal for music to the composer Oliver Knussen, she detained Ollie for several minutes with childhood reminiscences of Edward Elgar, who wrote a Nursery Suite for the birth of her sister and for whom she retained a lifelong affection. She followed that recollection with memories of six generations of British composers. Her Maj knows much more music than BBC Radio 2 can possibly imagine. The Queen’s 10 favourite pieces of music (according to Radio 2): – Oklahoma! by Howard Keel – Anything You Can Do (Annie Get Your Gun) by Dolores Gray and Bill Johnson – Sing by Gary Barlow and the Commonwealth Band featuring the Military Wives – Cheek to Cheek by Fred Astaire – The White Cliffs Of Dover by Vera Lynn – Leaning on a Lamp-post by George Formby – Praise, My Soul, The King Of Heaven (hymn) – The Lord is My Shepherd (hymn) – Lester Lanin Medley – Regimental March Milanollo photo: David Sillitoe/press pool
At the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford last year, Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, but with typical flair, Roderick Williams and Susie Allan presented them with a difference. Listen here on BBC Radio 3 Williams started with RVW Four Last Songs. Divest oneself of notions of Richard Strauss. RVW's songs aren't nearly such masterpieces, but a loose compilation of ideas left unfinished upon the composer's death. Procris is based on a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams, Menelaus on the Odyssey. The last two last poems are more personal .The contemplative mood of Tired suggests a man assessing his past without rancour, and Hands, eyes and heart suggests inward, private emotions. Stylistically, they connect more to very early RVW, even pre-Ravel RVW, than to his finest works, but are still worth hearing, especially for English song specialists. I first heard them from the Ludlow English Song Weekend in May 2015. Elgar is an essential feature of the Three Choirs Festival, which this year takes place in Gloucester. But large-scale Elgar, rarely Elgar piano song. Again, Roderick Williams to the rescue ! Elgar's Sea Pictures is usually heard with full orchestra, though Elgar himself transcribed the piano song version, and played it privately. Elgar's art songs are somewhat eclipsed by the fame of RVW, Quilter, Butterworth et al, for in many ways they hark back to an earlier era. Sea Pictures, however, was conceived with grand orchestral flourish, so this version is rather more than Elgar's other songs for voice and piano. Sea Pictures is also mezzo and contralto territory, so hearing it with a baritone makes it even more unusual. Most of us are imprinted with memories of Janet Baker singing "Yet, I the mother mild, hush thee, O my child" but the mother figure in the poem fades as the vision of Elfin Land emerges. The lower tessitura suits the last strophes, where "Sea sounds, like violins" lead the descent into slumber. The maritime references in Sabbath Morning at Sea become more prominent: most sailors in Elgar's time were male, after all. The piano part in this song is distinctively Elgarian. When RW sings "He shall assist me to look higher", you can almost feel the ship's sails billow in the wind. A male voice works best with The Swimmer and its muscular, athletic swagger: very macho. A pity that the BBC miked the piano too closely. When I heard Williams sing Sea Pictures in recital at the Oxford Lieder Festival with Andrew West five years ago, the balance was much more natural. Coming up soon, from the same concert last year, two settings of texts by lesser-known poets of the First World War. Rhian Samuel's A Swift Radiant Morning, (2015) a setting of five poems by Charles Hamilton Sorley, a Marlborough man who died, aged only 20, at the Battle of Loos in October 1915 and Tim Torry's The Voice of Grief (2003), settings of Charlotte Mew (1869-1928)
Sir Edward William Elgar (2 June 1857 23 February 1934) was an English composer, many of whose works have entered the British and international classical concert repertoire. Among his best-known compositions are orchestral works including the Enigma Variations, the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, concertos for violin and cello, and two symphonies. He also composed choral works, including The Dream of Gerontius, chamber music and songs. Although Elgar is often regarded as a typically English composer, most of his musical influences were not from England but from continental Europe. He felt himself to be an outsider, not only musically, but socially. In musical circles dominated by academics, he was a self-taught composer; in Protestant Britain, his Roman Catholicism was regarded with suspicion in some quarters; and in the class-conscious society of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, he was acutely sensitive about his humble origins even after he achieved recognition. After a series of moderately successful works his Enigma Variations (1899) became immediately popular in Britain and overseas. His later full-length religious choral works were well received but have not entered the regular repertory. The first of his Pomp and Circumstance Marches (1901) is well-known in the UK and in the US. Elgar has been described as the first composer to take the gramophone seriously. Between 1914 and 1925, he conducted a series of recordings of his works. The introduction of the microphone in 1925 made far more accurate sound reproduction possible, and Elgar made new recordings of most of his major orchestral.
Great composers of classical music