July 1st 2009

Review from December 2007

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Premieres and Encores
Henry Hugo PIERSON (1815-1873)

Macbeth, Symphonic Poem Op. 54 (1859) [20:34]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)

Fantasy Overture. Cortèges (1945) [14:34]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
David MORGAN (1933-1988)

Contrasts (1974) [21:47]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Francis CHAGRIN (1905-1972)

Concert Overture: Helter Skelter (1949) [6:46]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/John Pritchard
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)

Serenade for Strings (1922) [7:44]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)

Comedy Overture: Beckus the Dandipratt (1943) [7:52]
London Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite
rec. April 1976, Kingsway Hall (Morgan); Jan 1976, Kingsway Hall (Chagrin); Aug 1978, Kingsway Hall (Warlock); Sept 1978, Watford Town Hall (Harty); no details for Pierson; Rawsthorne
LYRITA SRCD.318 [79.22]

 

This CD has three key elements. Firstly there are three works that have been swept up from previous reissue projects at Lyrita. These include the Comedy Overture, Beckus the Dandipratt by Arnold, Chagrin’s Helter Skelter and Warlock’s Serenade for Frederick Delius. Contrasts – the highlight of this CD - by David Morgan was from an LP devoted to his music (SRCS 97). Incidentally, I wonder what has happened to the same composer’s Violin Concerto from that disc? And thirdly there are two new offerings from the Lyrita archive: Pierson's Macbeth and the Rawsthorne’s Cortèges have not been issued on this label before.

The first work is by the largely forgotten composer Henry Hugo Pierson. This was written in 1869 at a time which traditionally has been regarded as a downbeat period in English musical history – ‘The Land without Music’[see]. This work categorically disproves the sentiment of that myth. Pierson, originally spelt ‘Pearson’, was born in Oxford in 1816. After a good classical education at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge he studied music in England and Germany. In 1844 he accepted the post of Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. However most of his life was spent in Germany, where he died in Leipzig in 1873. He wrote a number of works in different genres, but he is perhaps noted for his choral music, songs and stage works. Grove mentions only a handful of pieces for orchestra besides the present work. These include a Romantic Overture, Hamlet: funeral march, and a handful of overtures, including Romeo and Juliet and The Maid of Orleans. The Romeo and Juliet Overture was recorded on Hyperion CDH55088.

There are a number of things that need to be said about this present work. Firstly, although the composer annotated his score with quotations and ‘stage directions’ it is not necessary to follow the plot of ‘The Scottish Play’ to appreciate this work. Secondly, the orchestration is impressive; without going overboard it is fair to say that Pierson was manifestly a master of his art. Thirdly, this is a major work lasting some twenty minutes. At the back of my mind was the fear that the interest of the music could not be maintained. Somehow the residual prejudice that exists about ‘Victorian’ music made me doubt whether the invention and integrity of this composer’s tone poem would hold up. The reality is that from the first note to the last, Pierson holds our attention and interest. There are considerable mood changes to catch the imagination - from the witches’ incantations through Lady Macbeth’s death. We also hear the marching English army and a musical representation of the ‘dagger’ scene. The only problem is that much of this music is frankly quite beautiful as opposed to sinister or macabre: and one would be tempted to put Duncan, Banquo et al to one side and just enjoy the tunes. Yet the piece does work as a tone poem and well deserves our attention. It is, in reality, a minor masterpiece and the sooner we hold up our hands and recognise this, the better. Pierson, along with Macfarren, Sullivan, Corder and possibly Prout are considerable composers in their own right and must not be relegated to also-rans under the overpowering shade of Sir Edward Elgar.

Pierson sample

I have never heard David Morgan’s Contrasts properly. Let me explain. I did have the original vinyl LP in my collection – but I bought it second hand. I guess someone must have had it on the beach, because the sound quality is dreadful. Try as I did, I could not clean the sand from the groove. The Violin Concerto awaits my pleasure for the same reason. I cannot imagine why someone would want to use this album as a Frisbee on Morecambe Beach – but that seems to have been the case. A bad buy! So I was delighted to hear Contrasts on CD. And what a wonderful work I have missed.

I know virtually nothing about the composer. I do know that he studied with the late Dr Alan Bush and Leighton Lucas. Morgan was born in 1933 and has written a Sinfonia da Requiem, the above mentioned Violin Concerto and a number of chamber and instrumental music. He does not feature in New Grove. Therefore, I depend on Paul Conway’s programme notes for my understanding of this work.

David Morgan composed Contrasts in the autumn of 1974. He dedicated it to the memory of Shostakovich. The composer has described the composition as "a deliberate contrast in duality: it consists of two disparate movements, each based on the same two themes, constantly varied throughout the piece." The first movement is over sixteen minutes long whereas the second is only five. Yet there is no apparent formal or aural imbalance.

It could be concluded that this work is in fact a two movement symphony – there are plenty of precedents for that particular form. Or perhaps, as Conway suggests, it is a ‘Concerto for Orchestra’. Whatever the formal underpinning of this work, it is undoubtedly a fantastic piece. The emotional range is tremendous, without being confusing or overbearing. The musical style is always approachable without being simplistic or passé. It is possible to hear bitterness, reflection and joie de vivre in these pages: it is moving and exciting and enjoyable at the same time. The balance is perfect: the orchestration is masterly. I cannot imagine why a work of this calibre and quality is unknown. I would actually give reams of Shostakovich to possess David Morgan’s tribute to the elder composer. Finally, I hope that Lyrita will re-release the Violin Concerto as soon as possible. [since released]

Lento       Presto misterioso       Allegro energico

It surprises me that Alan Rawsthorne’s Cortèges is even less well known than most of his works. In spite of some negative criticism in the Musical Times this is a striking essay that impresses by the skill of its form and the variety of its instrumentation. The title was queried by the contemporary MT reviewer "Why in French?" I am not sure; perhaps the composer wanted to emphasise the ‘funereal’ as well as the ‘triumphant’ – which would be less obvious if he had called it ‘Processionals’? It is divided into two main parts – the first is more in the line of a lament and the latter that of celebration – but not untinged with reflection. sample Paul Conway notes allusions to Mahler in the first half of the work and suggests that Rawsthorne was able skilfully to combine epic material with intimate moments. The second section of this overture literally sparkles: the mood has changed out of all recognition. sample The work was described in the Musical Times as a ‘packet of procession snap-shots, mostly cheerful in our inconsequential English way, but not very original …" I think this is being disingenuous although I wholeheartedly agree with the ‘snap-shot’ allusion. This is a good overture that was quite definitely a work of its era. Conway concludes his notes by suggesting that this piece is no less appealing than the better known Street Corner Overture (1944) although he notes, correctly, that it is more ambitious and wide-ranging.

I remember my friend John coming into the music department at my ‘High School’ and announcing that Francis Chagrin was dead. Now I must confess that I had not heard of the composer and was not sure if ‘it’ was male or female. However I was soon apprised that Chagrin’s great claim to fame was that he wrote the music to the Colditz Story. Later explorations have revealed that he composed three symphonies, a piano concerto and a deal of other music. I have never heard these ‘symphonic’ works and I guess that few people have. It is perhaps difficult to deduce the value of a composer’s ‘serious’ music from the present Concert Overture. However, even the most cursory hearings of Helter Skelter reveals a composer who delighted in fine melodies, superb orchestration and interesting harmonies. This piece is quite definitely a crowd-puller and I have often wondered why it does not feature in concert programmes as a ‘curtain raiser’. Surely Chagrin’s non-film music is long overdue exploration and revival. sample

Of course, Warlock was a great enthusiast of Frederick Delius. He wrote an impressive biography on the composer. The Serenade was written between 1921 and 1922 as a tribute to the elder composer on his sixtieth birthday. I have always viewed this lovely piece as being more Delius-like than the man himself ever penned! It is certainly a fine tribute, yet somehow it cannot be defined as pastiche. There are elements of Warlock’s art present and correct in a number of places, yet nothing quite as Spartan as The Curlew is found in these pages. Gorgeous is not an immoderate adjective to use for this piece. It has been one of my Desert Island Discs for over a third of a century! sample

Arnold’s overture was written in 1943 and is generally considered to be his first definitive work. It is a portrait of a street urchin. Interestingly ‘dandipratt’ was an archaic name for a waif. The programme notes point out that although the piece is entitled ‘Comedy Overture’, Beckus is a deeper piece than the title suggests. It develops as a set variations on two themes through a number of adventures and misadventures - some being a little sinister. Beckus could be seen as a kind of youthful Till Eulenspiegel. The attentive listener will recognize a number of Arnoldian fingerprints. It is quite definitely one of the foundation works of the composer’s musical canon. sample

This is a great ‘compilation’ and deserves to be popular. It balances works that are relatively well known with one that has been ignored for generations and one that just demands recognition. Most of the pieces are available elsewhere, and I guess British music enthusiasts will have these alternative recordings. My bottom line is that this CD is well worth the price for the Pierson and more especially for the David Morgan alone. The other five works are attractive and interesting additions to this ‘must have’ CD.

John France

see also review by Rob Barnett

 

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