One has to be of a certain age to remember the days when composer Antony Hopkins was a regular and popular broadcaster. His highly informative and entertaining ‘Talking About Music’ series became a regular feature on the BBC in the UK and 44 other countries in which it was broadcast. He is a prolific writer too, and published at least 12 books including, in addition to those on a wide range of musical topics, a very readable autobiography. But it is as a very versatile and practical composer that he best expresses his musical personality.
The chamber music and songs included on this pair of CDs give only a brief glimpse of the breadth and creativity of his compositional output. The four-movement Sonata for viola and piano with which the first disc opens is a case in point: – a significant addition to a genre to which other British composers (including Malcolm Arnold, Arnold Bax, Lennox Berkeley, Gordon Jacob, Walter Leigh and Alan Rawsthorne) contributed. The same can be said for his piano sonatas, of which the Rondo from the second, and the third in its entirety, are included on the first CD. Another tour de force is his Partita for solo violin, a five-movement work that shows an unmistakable debt to J.S. Bach (including a fugato) without giving any hint of pastiche. The selection of songs included, dating from the 1940s and 50s, reveal a gift for melody and highly effective word setting. Some contain subsequently added obbligato recorder parts that certainly enhance the overall effect.
Recorder players are likely to be already familiar with Hopkins’s Four Dances from Back to Methuselah (1946) and his Suite for descant and piano, composed for Walter Bergmann in 1952, both included in the programme. However, it would appear that Walter Bergmann’s influence resulted in an even earlier Pastiche Suite for treble and piano, composed in 1944. Hopkins admits to having no recollection of its composition or why and how it turned up in the musical library of Sir Thomas Beecham! Thankfully it did come to light an its three brief movements Allegro molto giusto , Alla siciliano and Vivace non troppo can be enjoyed in this premiere recording. The first movement in particular is a gem. Originally composed for beginner flautists, but here performed in a new version for recorder and piano, Three Seductions add more of Hopkins’s characteristic music to the recorder repertoire.
Of the eight short tributes to Antony Hopkins, On How to Sing by Andrew Plant, Evening in April by David Dubery, CantAHta by Gordon Crosse and Pierrot by Joseph Phibbs are scored for soprano voice, recorder(s) and piano. Bass recorder and eventually sopranino are included in Andrew Plant’s piece depicting an argument between the frog and skylark schools of singing. David Dubery’s and Joseph Phibbs’s set poems by Douglas Gibson and Sara Teasdale respectively – very different pieces, but effectively capturing the atmospheres of the chosen texts. Gordon Crosse’s piece is wordless, but makes use of the happy coincidence that Antony Hopkins’s initials are the ‘classic wordless sound for singers’ hence the capital AH in the title of this little piece constructed in the manner of Handel or Telemann.
David Matthews’s A Little Pastoral is for solo recorder and, though beginning with the notes A and B-natural (H), soon branches out into a flow of lyrical melody. These same two notes occur in the piano part of Elis Pehkonen’s Pieds en l’air ; the descant recorder has the well-known Warlock melody, a particular favourite of the dedicatee. Head Music by David Ellis is scored for tenor recorder and piano; it is calm and impressionistic and very much in contrast to the busy Above all That for recorder and piano by Anthony Gilbert who, like a number of the other composers, mentions his gratitude for the influence of Hopkins’s radio broadcasts.
A fundamental element of Hopkins’s character – his highly developed sense of humour – comes across with abundance in is reading of three of his poems, ‘Good King Jack Nicklaus’, ‘Charlie’s Revenge’ and ‘String Quartet’. As if these were not bonus enough there are excerpts from original recordings of Hopkins’s musical Johnny the Priest and his one-act opera Three’s Company (with Hopkins himself at the piano) composed for an Intimate Opera production to words by Michael Flanders. Here we hear yet another side to Antony Hopkins’s wide musical creativity.
Both discs form not only a lively portrait of the composer, but also both a sincere tribute and a musical treat in which the enthusiasm of the performers and composers is very evident.