I have had a soft spot for the music of Sir Hamilton Harty ever since my late-father told me how he had once met him. My father had come home from school one afternoon in the 1930s and was ceremoniously ushered into the drawing-room to be introduced to the great conductor and composer. Why he was at my grandfather’s house was never really explained, but I guess it was to do with some performance of Elijah or Messiah . My grandfather was, amongst other things, a choirmaster and ‘fixer’ of musical events in the Manchester area. It was relatively late in his life that my father told me this little gem – I think he felt that I would not be interested!
Shortly after this tale was told, Chandos brought out their stunning CD of Harty’s Piano Concerto. Coupled with this impressive and romantically-charged piece was his equally fine In Ireland . This was in a revision which the composer had made for flute, harp and orchestra. However, the original piece was written in 1918, shortly before Harty was appointed as principal conductor of the Hallé: it was for flute and piano. Interestingly, the work presented on this CD is something of a composite or hybrid version – utilising a number of the more intricate ‘arabesque style passages used…in the orchestral version’. It is a great opening piece that succeeds in creating a fine impressionistic picture of the Emerald Isle.
Edward German is a composer who is usually remembered – where he is remembered at all – for one work – the opera Merrie England . However, he was a prolific composer, who wrote in a number of genres – including symphonies, tone poems, incidental music, piano pieces and chamber works. The programme notes are correct in pointing out that German composed in a style that was fashionable at that time (late Victorian/Edwardian) – he was not a mould-breaker or musical prophet. Yet, he was a first-rate craftsman and had an uncanny ability to write good melodies – even if they tended to be a little sentimental. The Intermezzo is a fine example of this achievement. The melody and subsequent elaborations seem to unfold like a summer flower.
The Suite is a good example of English music at its best. I have noted elsewhere that there are definite touches of Sir Arthur Sullivan about this music. Yet German is not content simply to replicate the older man’s successes. This is a short, but beautifully constructed piece that well deserves its new-found place in the flute repertoire. Furthermore, and I know this may seem rather perverse, there are one or two phrases from the opening Valse gracieuse (and elsewhere) that seem to anticipate none other than Malcolm Arnold! The middle movement, a Souvenir , is quite a considerable piece. It certainly challenges any suggestion that German is simply a ‘light music’ composer. This is a reflective and often introverted meditation. We do not know what it was a ‘souvenir’ of, but it is certainly an attractive and thoughtful piece. The final Gypsy Dance is a tour-de-force, which seems to nod more to a theatrical presentation of what imagined life was like in a Romany community, rather than any genuine quotation of folk tunes or pastiche. Nonetheless, like the rest of the piece it is thoroughly enjoyable. The work was composed in 1889.
One piece on this CD that I felt I ought to enjoy is Michael Head’s By the River in Spring . Its very title suggests a piece of English pastoralism, which would normally attract me. However I am not sure whether I like this piece. The overriding impression is of a catena of folk tunes, loosely strung together: there is no sense of development. It has been well described as “a song without words interrupted by a flute cadenza and a short vivace section.” I note the ‘rusticity’ of the flute melodies being accompanied by ‘late romantic pianism’ which leads me to feel that the work is a little imbalanced. It never quite seems to settle into the mood that the title implies. Michael Head wrote this piece in 1950: it was dedicated to the flautist Gareth Morris.
I am on more familiar territory with William Alwyn’s short, but perfectly balanced Flute Sonata. It is, perhaps, not widely understood that the composer gave flute lessons at the Royal Academy of Music as well as his better known role as a teacher of composition. The Sonata was composed in 1948 and was given its first performance by one of Alwyn’s pupils, Gareth Morris. The work was then effectively lost. Mary Alwyn has related how she found the flute part amongst her late-husband’s music, but not the piano part. There were, however, two pencil copies located which were largely similar, save for one particular passage. The flautist Christopher Hyde-Smith edited the piece and created the performing edition.
The Sonata, which lasts less than eight minutes, is much more involved than its length would suggest. It is presented in one continuous movement, but is clearly divided into three contrasting sections followed by a short coda. The work opens with a slow piano introduction, which is well described as austere. The flute adds its comment before the music develops into a more dramatic utterance. The heart of the work is the beautiful ‘adagio tranquillo’ which is cast aside by the ‘acerbic fugue’ of the ‘allegro ritmico e feroce’. This is both complex and technically difficult music. The Sonata is an impressive work in which Alwyn manages to balance his neo-classical ideas with a considerable degree of neo-romantic interest.
I have never come across the composer Havelock Nelson before. However, the programme notes explain that was a “leading light on the Irish musical scene from the 1950s [onwards]”. In addition to working as an accompanist, conductor and broadcaster for the BBC in Belfast, he founded the Studio Opera Group. Nelson composed a number of songs, choral works and incidental music for radio, TV and films.
The two little pieces recorded here look across the Atlantic for their inspiration. The first, Eirie Cherie is based on a Trinidadian folksong and has all the mood of the Caribbean gently crafted onto a traditional musical framework. However, the second piece, In Venezuela , is subtitled ‘Improvisation on a South American Theme’ yet, to my ear this is somewhat wishful thinking. Much of this music, especially the flute solo part, seems to be closer to Kilkenny rather than Caracas!
Thomas Dunhill was a composer who seemed to have his career divided into two distinct parts by critics. There was the ‘light’ music exemplified by the operetta Tantivy Towers , which is really a German or Sullivan-esque confection and the ballet score Dick Whittington . On the other hand he was the serious composer who wrote, amongst other things, a great Symphony (long underrated) and a fine Piano Quintet. His song The Cloths of Heaven is near perfect. Thomas Dunhill is a composer who desperately needs to be rediscovered- especially his chamber and orchestral scores.
However the present Valse Fantasia belongs to his ‘light’ music credentials and is none the worse for that. The programme notes point out that the exact date of this work is unknown and could have been composed any time between 1900 and the end of the Great War. This is a lovely, extrovert piece that surely challenges the flautist in every direction. It is a summery work that is a product of Dunhill’s desire “that music should be easily accessible to the listener without the composer having to compromise his desire for personal expression or feeling obliged to follow the vagaries of some current musical fashion.” This work is not ground-breaking or even important in Dunhill’s catalogue. But it is thoroughly enjoyable. What more can a listener ask for?
Another composer who is unfamiliar to me is Stanford Robinson although I do know of his sterling work as a conductor at the BBC and with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. His Moon-Maiden’s Dance is a languorous little piece that is quite timeless in its sound-world. Quite who this particular lady was, the programme notes do not tell, however she appears to have been an engaging lass!
Kenneth Leighton is a composer who is often ignored or sidelined in any musical discussion. Fortunately, a number of his works are now beginning to appear on Chandos and other record labels.
The present Sonata is the longest and most involved work on this CD – it is certainly the most challenging. The programme notes point out that this present recording is in fact a “slightly adapted version of the composer’s first Violin Sonata…” I do not know enough about Leighton’s music to know if this was an ‘official’ transcription or something that has been contrived posthumously. Whatever the case, it certainly works in this format. The Sonata (Violin) was originally composed in 1949 and was first performed in France at the Grand Theatre in Bordeaux. The work is in three movements, played without a break. The heart of the piece is the absolutely gorgeous ‘lento e liberamente’ which is an introspective, yet ultimately positive exploration of some depth. The work is complex, profound and satisfying. Along with the William Alwyn Sonata, it is probably the most important piece on this disc.
This is an engaging CD that is both well-planned and beautifully played. The two soloists have contrived an important and interesting programme of British flute and piano music that ought to be in the repertory. The programme notes are helpful and the sound quality is excellent.
I suggest that listeners explore this CD slowly but surely: take each work separately and enjoy!
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