All eyes on Opera Rara…

At this year’s prestigious OPUS KLASSIK Awards, the Opera Rara recording label took centre-stage. Its success in winning the plaudits of the judges with a handsome CD set of a little-known opera by Offenbach, La Princesse de Trebizonde, has very much put the spotlight on a discerning recording initiative. Their latest release, Donizetti’s equally rare (1828) L’esule di Roma – ‘the exile from Rome’ – brings the work of opera conductor, Carlo Rizzi, to the fore, once again, as well as reminding us that 225 years have passed since Donizetti’s birth.

Rizzi, for many years associated with Welsh National Opera, has a rich and varied repertoire and endeared himself very much to audiences at the New Theatre, Cardiff, home of WNO, during the heyday of his tenure. The maestro’s Italianate ‘light touch’ – as opposed to the Teutonic heft of mid- to late-19th century opera – is put to great use in the bel canto genre of Donizetti. Yet this particular piece has many of the hallmarks of ‘heroic opera’, set as it is in the reign of Tiberius – whose opponents have been vanquished by General Publius, an outcome hailed by all it seems, except the Senator Murena, father of the beautiful Argelia, who has mysteriously disappeared… The reason: the ardent Septimus (the son of a man exiled by Murena) has returned to win Argelia’s heart – freely given – a situation which leads to his imprisonment. There is the unnerving unravelling of a political conspiracy, and the mental breakdown of Murena, who has condemned Septimus to death – but then, the eventual pardon and reuniting with Argelia – a typically joyful end for an opera of this era. 

Bass-baritone Nicola Alaimo, bel canto soprano Albina Shagimuratova, and tenor Sergey Romanovsky in the title role, lead the cast – supported by that orchestral precision-instrument, Britten Sinfonia, whose ensemble size as a chamber orchestra make it perfect for those intense moments for the romantic duo at the heart of this Roman epic – and yet also capable of the grand moment (a prelude, perhaps, to the age of Verdi). And what a combination the leading stars make: each scene and aria outshining the previous, giving the opera a sense of unrelenting drama, with no feeling of drift or dullness, just an immersion into the fate of the exile, and the pain of internal exile, in the stifling atmosphere of Tiberius’s citadel.

With an excellent CD booklet (synopsis, artist profiles etc.) the new discs are a firm recommendation for those who relish front-rank operatic performance, the intrigue and passion of Ancient Rome, and recordings capable of evoking the radiant, searing sounds of the opera house.

CD details: Donizetti, L’esule di Roma, Opera Rara, (ORC64)

Looming Labour pains

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Staring into the political abyss, in this, the last fortnight of the General Election campaign, the British Conservative Party is probably asking itself: how has it come to this? The impressive majority won by Boris Johnson in the 2019 Brexit election across large areas of the midlands and northern England where Labour once reigned unchallenged, has dissolved into nothingness. The allegiance of those former Labour voters (the result of Labour abandoning the real workers in favour of a ‘smarter’ internationalism forged in the salons of central London) has boomeranged back to the party of prices-and-incomes policies and trades unionism. 

Reinventing Labour as an electable, reassuringly mainstream force for common-sense, whose delegates sing God Save The King at their conference and vote for increased defence spending, Sir Keir Starmer’s determination to pull his members away from the Corbyn years of grievance-Socialism (and from the Blairite legacy of free migration and easy credit) has pulled the rug from under his Tory opponents.

Combined with the catastrophic mistakes made by the Conservatives – shindigs in Downing Street during lockdown, a Liz Truss economic gamble that succeeded in doubling everybody’s mortgage payments, the present scandal about election-date gambling by senior Conservatives – Starmer has emerged to raise again the tattered and tarnished banner of trust – in politicians, and in the reliability of government. Curiously enough for an Opposition leader who mocked Truss’s ideology of growth-at-all-costs, Starmer has placed at the top of his agenda the very idea of those denounced free-marketeers – that the only possibility of clambering out of the United Kingdom’s slurry pit of debt and billion-of-pounds social spending is to shore up the real, productive economy. 

Yet can he ever achieve his growth-to-fuel-the-welfare-state objective? With the industries that Labour so relied upon from 1945 to 1979 now either pruned to their thinnest-possible capacity, or completely non-existent, can a Starmer Government ever hope to re-seed industry? After the 5th July, will the new ministers subsidise, nationalise Port Talbot steelworks, protect British jobs, rescue us from privatised price-rises in the (Tory-created) deregulated energy market by establishing a new Great British energy company? Economic experts such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies fear that no new government will have much chance to address Britain’s ever-growing state borrowing. 

There seems little doubt that Starmer will partially ramp up Britain’s defences, say the right things that will appeal to Middle England and the old Red Wall/Brexit seats of the North, and within the precincts of government will pay little attention to ‘woke’ – one of our few remaining growth industries. He will see planning regulations as being against growth – a curious similarity with Truss – yet will make the mistake of viewing housing development and wind farms as generators of wealth. He will pay little attention to countryside matters or rural voters’ concerns: he is, after all (like Jeremy Corbyn) a London politician, through and through.

Sir Keir also promises a new Border Command, to tackle the mass-migrant arrivals on the Kent coast – but just what does that mean? Just a renaming of the existing messy, ineffectual Border Force? His undoubted successes in Scotland will relegate the SNP, and that alone is a good thing for the Union of the Kingdom – so his victory will be a mixed bag. It will usher in, however, a long period of further detachment from politics: he and his team look technocratic and too-serious, even when they remove their ties at those irritating ‘let-me-level-with-you’ moments. And a year from now, everyone who voted for the Labour landslide is likely to be complaining about electricity prices, too-high mortgages, ‘Labour dictatorship’….

Starmer is in the real world – a world away from Corbyn and the recent Labour past – and he and his inner circle know that they will have to deal with Meloni and Le Pen, Russia and China. So his government – tested by world events – may reflect a new managerialism, not an old ideology. We drift into new waters, new times…

A Hispanic and Germanic journey

STUART MILLSON travels from Moorish Spain to Beethoven’s more-ish Mass

Newly minted by the imaginative Meridian CD label comes a recording which is best played, late in the evening – on a warm night – with a glass of Rioja to hand and candlelight flickering in the corner of your room. In the absence of real Iberian surroundings, the disc – From Al Andalus to the Americas – takes the listener from the times of the Moorish domination of Spain from the eighth century, to the fall of Granada in 1492 to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and eventually the late 19th/early 20th centuries, the era of composers Granados, Turina and the Argentinian, Ginastera. 

The motivating force for and on the recording is the acclaimed American soprano, Christine Moore Vassallo, whose mother, of Arab-Levantine ancestry, inspired the singer to delve into the richly-textured, heady, overlapping mix of Muslim, Spanish, folk, religious, pastoral music and lamentations – fanned, like seeds in the air, to the New World, but rooted in the hills and gardens of Al-Andalus (the name for Spain during Umayyad rule). For this Meridian recording, Christine’s collaborators are Philip Arditti – an expert in Sephardi culture and an exponent of Darbuka, Riqq and Frame drums, Rachel Beckles Wilson, a writer and composer who is one of the West’s foremost authorities on the music of the oud, the guitar virtuoso, Pablo Gimenez, flautist Anthony Robb, and the Spanish pianist, Jorge Robaina. Each musician contributes to this fascinating hour-long time-travel through the history of the Iberian peninsula.

An anonymous pre-15th century piece begins the journey – Lamma bada yatathanna – from a poetic genre of the Arab language which appeared in the tenth century. The song, though, is ageless, describing a gentleman’s interest in the ‘swaying hips’ of a woman, and bemoaning his malady of love. Sephardic songs then follow (arranged in 1975 by Manuel Valls), leading on to three anonymous 15th to 17th century items, collected by the poet, Lorca (1898-1936) Canciones antiguas espanoles; the first ballad, Las morillas de Jaen, telling the tale of three Moorish girls, converts to Christianity, gathering olives and apples on dusty terraces, but earning, too, admiring glances from a nearby farmer. The Iberian climate clearly inspires ‘youth, mirth and warm desire’…

In Canciones del Jardin Secreto, a composer of modern times, Anton Garcia Abril (1933-2021) sets old Arab texts, including the lament of Boabdil (or Abdullah, the last Moorish king) for his lost fortress of Alhambra:

‘Longed-for Alhambra, your castles are weeping

About what happened to me, Lord Abu-Abdullah

Give me my stallion and white blade

And let us go and take back the Alhambra…’

The collection ends with the colours and magic of Ginastera’s Five popular Argentinian songs; taking us to the New World; to the frontiers of the Latin civilisation founded by trade, exploration, conquest, yet tinged and underpinned by the cadences of a culture – that of Islam and the Moors – which itself formed one of the world’s mighty empires.

Gustav Blaeser’s 1840 model for a never-made monument to Beethoven

Finally, by way of complete contrast, we travel to a mediaeval church in the ancient kingdom of Kent (the land now criss-crossed by motorways, the pilgrims in shorter supply) to a performance of Beethoven’s Mass in C major, given by the powerful forces of the 70-strong East Malling Singers – Kent’s large-in-scale, large-in-ambition ‘amateur’ choral society. Able to attract exceptionally fine instrumental accompanists and accomplished soloists, the Singers (conducted by Ciara Considine, with organist, Nick Bland) patiently rehearse their repertoire for many gruelling weeks – a repertoire that typically includes Masses by Haydn, the occasional Handel oratorio, uplifting anthems and hymns by Parry and Vaughan Williams. 

At first, the regular concertgoer and buyer of CDs might pause before considering a non-professional performance of a Beethoven Mass. But such reticence would be a mistake, because here – like an amateur orchestra tackling Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony – we enjoy the pleasure of hearing the rush of adrenaline of aspiring artists, our fellow human beings, activating every sinew in the cause of doing their very best. And in the wide acoustic of the Church of St. James the Great, the rising swell of sound in Beethoven’s opening Kyrie is just as satisfying for any true music-lover, as if you had just ventured into a Deutsche Grammophon recording studio. With a reverential Bruckner motet as an extra item on the CD, how could you resist?

CD details: From Al-Andalus to the Americas, Meridian, CDE 84647

Beethoven, Mass in C Major. A private recording, but for further details contact Mrs. Elaine Gordon of East Malling Singers,www.eastmallingsingers.co.uk

Masters of the English musical renascence

Image: Stuart Millson

STUART MILLSON reports from the 17th English Music Festival

Ever since 2006, except for the shortest of absences due to the Covid crisis, the Oxfordshire village of Dorchester-on-Thames has been hosting the English Music Festival, the EMF – the artistic creation of one dedicated Englishwoman, Mrs. Em Marshall-Luck. The first-ever concert was held on an October evening, given by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by (the late) David Lloyd Jones – a conductor noted for his love of opera and Russian music, but also for the music of the English musical renascence: the era often seen as dominated by Elgar, but actually the time when Holst, Vaughan Williams, Bax, Bliss, Ireland and many others shaped a national musical style (or styles) with their expansive symphonies and folk-infused song-cycles.

For an initially small Festival with great ambitions, but – inevitably – with limited funds, the participation of the BBC’s most versatile orchestra was a masterstroke of strategy by the Festival founder – ensuring a prestigious beginning to her concert series and an all-important broadcast on BBC Radio 3. At once the Festival was put on the map and thanks to many others being inspired by Em’s great enthusiasm, has grown in scale and scope through the years, with the BBC’s orchestra still the mainstay of the opening concert.

Today, the Festival takes place over the May Bank Holiday, a time when the countryside surrounding Dorchester comes into its own: willow cotton drifting on the air; the footpaths to the Thames laced with white cow parsley; meadows of buttercups leading to Iron Age embankments; and nearby, under the full canopy of churchyard trees, the welcome shade and cool recesses of places such as St. Peter, Little Wittenham. 

Here, among the tomb chests and brasses, the Oxfordshire of quiet parsons and fussy parochial church councils can be found – but also the dreamy, immemorial Thames-scape of William Morris and Kenneth Grahame, the immemorial England of T.S. Eliot, Sir John Betjeman, or Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings. High above the hamlet, like a sentinel in the downland, stand the trees of the Wittenham Clumps: inspiration for Paul Nash – and welcome shade for grazing cows and OS-guided walkers who find themselves a little too warm after wandering to the ridge on a hot day. As was the case with Richard Adams’s rabbits of Berkshire-set Watership Down, the view here seems to take in ‘the whole world!’ – or at least, the Chilterns to the east, Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford to the north, and beyond, an outline of the beginnings of the English Midlands.

Dorchester Abbey is the largest building visible in the landscape (save for a lurking, distant 1930s-looking factory-type structure to the northwest). The Abbey has been a seat of Christianity since the seventh century and a survivor of the reign of Henry Vlll – its great window and towering arches a worthy rival to more famous landmarks, such as Gloucester Cathedral. As the Wittenham Clumps were to Paul Nash, so the Abbey became an inspiration to fellow artist, John Piper – and in our own time, for the orchestral musicians of the EMF, the great church offering a near-perfect acoustic and a truly inspiring setting for their concerts. 

And for the musical offering of Friday 24th May, Doreen Carwithen’s Suffolk Suite opened the BBC Concert Orchestra’s programme, the work based upon romantic and folk-reminiscent melodies originally penned for a short 1950s transport film, entitled East Anglian Holiday. A superior piece of public information-film scoring, the suite begins with a stirring ‘spirit of England’ theme, which gives the impression that you are back on the Wittenham Clumps, surveying the majesty of ‘this other Eden.’ However, East Anglia has no downland, so listeners find themselves rubbing shoulders with morris-dancers at a Suffolk festivity, or being lulled into an afternoon slumber by the waters of Orford Ness. A stirring, martial portrait of Framlingham Castle ends the sequence, but not before a brief reappearance of the moving opening tune – a pleasing farewell to the East of England on Carwithen’s bus or rail trip to the county.

Holst’s imposing and early (1899-1900) Symphony in F major, subtitled The Cotswolds, was the main work in the concert – its last movement, like the Carwithen, conjuring scenes of bucolic, open-air celebration and the atmosphere of a countryside where people still whistled folk-tunes. Yet the work’s other movements sometimes seemed to bypass the village green, with an altogether less scene-painting feel – although it has to be said that the brooding and dark slow movement is a memorial in music to the Arts and Crafts luminary, William Morris. Conductor Martin Yates and the BBC Concert Orchestra played with deeply-felt intensity, with brass and the darker hues of the orchestra summoning the spirits of the Cotswold hills and combes.

Brass instruments were very much in evidence in the world premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Richard II – A Concert Fantasy, woven together from fragments of music and ‘cues’ written by the composer for a planned wartime radio play. The arranger and bringer-to-life of this Shakespeare scenario is Nathaniel Lew, Professor of Music at St. Michael’s College, Colchester, Vermont, who – like conductor, Martin Yates (the arranger of RVW’s Falstaff suite, ‘Fat Knight’, also once premiered at this Festival) – has a fascination with the rescuing and revival of works once thought to be lost, or not to have existed at all. The performance fully honoured the EMF’s guiding philosophy of what can almost be seen as musical archaeology, or restoration.

Saturday morning’s chamber recital featured Rupert Marshall-Luck, violin, and Peter Cartwright, piano, doing their brilliant bit in bringing obscure works into the limelight, including Ernest Farrar’s Celtic Suite, Bliss’s Theme and Cadenza, and sonatas by Herbert Howells and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (whose Clarinet Concerto, played by Michael Collins, featured in the first-night concert). Known for his authoritative performances of Elgar’s famous Violin Sonata, Rupert Marshall-Luck, brought gravitas to the Howells and Stanford, aided by the concerto-like strength of Peter Cartwright’s piano playing. Both artists channelled huge energy and concentration into what was a lengthy, often heavyweight chamber programme, which allowed us to see the overlooked greatness of England’s heritage of smaller-scale works.

Hilary Davan Wetton, with the Godwine Choir. Image: Stuart Millson

My journey to Dorchester ended this year with the Saturday evening concert by the Godwine Choir conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton, an effervescent, ever-youthful 80-year-old veteran of the concert podium. Addressing the audience on the desperate need for arts funding in Britain, and contrasting how Parisian politicians would authorise the pouring of money into any festival of French music, the Maestro went on to conduct choral masterpieces such as Vaughan Williams, O Clap Your Hands; Elgar’s 1914 Give Unto The Lord, but with time, too, for the enchanting Blake-inspired part-song by Havergal Brian, The Dream – with a folkish, fairy atmosphere of glades and glow worms. Dreamscapes were also created by the wonderful Godwine voices in the form of Holst’s Sanskrit-inspired Hymns from the Rig Veda, pieces that had the Abbey audience spellbound, especially one of my concert companions, a youngish (still under-40) relative newcomer to music. Proof indeed, should the Arts Council require it, that you stimulate an interest in classical music by playing to people… classical music.

With its Suffolk and Sanskrit music, its Cotswolds and choral contributions, the 2024 EMF may well go down as a vintage ‘season’ – but we say that every year.

Is this a dagger they see before them?

STUART MILLSON is appalled to find Mid Wales Opera facing closure

Founded 35 years ago to bring the finest music and drama to rural towns and communities, Mid Wales Opera is a company specialising in bringing pared-down versions of the greatest music-dramas to far-flung parts of the country. 

On Saturday 23rd March, their run of Verdi’s Macbeth came to an end at the c. 500-seat Brecon Theatre (Theatr Brycheiniog), with a capacity audience enjoying Jeremy Sams’s English version of the score. Directed by Richard Studer – and full marks here for the stage lighting and ‘recycling’ of roles among the chorus – Mid Wales’s own glorious opera company succeeded in generating a dramatic effect, just as overwhelming as anything you might hear at Welsh or English National Opera.

How was it possible for an orchestra-pit ensemble, just 15-strong, to conjure much of Verdi’s lush orchestration? Under conductor Jonathan Lyness the resident chamber orchestra, Ensemble Cymru, achieved this miracle – the timpanist also playing the side-drum, and their splendid cellist generating a rich, resonant sound in those dark moments of the drama. 

On stage, meanwhile, Macbeth’s court, began its disintegration: soldiers with a Fascistic air, reminiscent of Richard Loncraine’s film of Richard lll, marched up and down, Lady Macbeth – the brilliant stage presence of Mari Wyn Williams unleashing her amoral powers, and Macbeth himself, sung by Jean-Kristof Bouton, descending into his ‘feverish visions’ as the apparition of the murdered Banquo appears at a castle feast.

The witches, dressed as 1950s’ office secretaries, but with demonic eye make-up reminiscent of Kathleen Byron’s unsettling appearance in the 1947 film, Black Narcissus, deserve great praise for their unsettling performance. Finally, the end comes for Macbeth as a forest supernaturally advances upon his fortress – actually, the English army in camouflage, although on stage at Mid Wales Opera only the Scottish saltire was raised. (Surely a major omission that the Cross of St. George did not appear?!)

What next for Mid Wales Opera? A real-life dramatic crisis, no less: the shocking removal of one hundred per cent of their grant from the Arts Council of Wales, casting doubt over whether productions of this kind could ever be staged again. Is this a dagger they see before them? It would seem so. But the story is the same, everywhere. Last year, the BBC tried to disband its own elite choir, the famous BBC Singers, and cut its symphonic strength across three ensemblesMeanwhilethe length and breadth of these islands, from Birmingham to Bournemouth, our orchestras and theatres struggle to convince those in power of the vital need for the arts. 

Quite simply, Britain now has a choice: do we just become a TV/consumer society, turning our backs on the splendour and enrichment of music and the arts? Or do we challenge the Arts Council and those in political office for a change in direction? As the wise Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger put it: “Neglect the civilised arts at your peril…”

To support the appeal for Mid Wales Opera, write to Bryn Wgan, Caersws, Powys, Wales, SY17 5QU

Where three counties meet…

The not-so-new castle at Newcastle Emlyn. Image: Derek Turner

Beyond the high watershed to the north of Carmarthenshire, which separates the Rivers Gwili and Teifi, lies the countryside where the three counties of west Wales converge: Carmarthenshire, with Carmarthen town, steeped in legends of Merlin the wizard and Dylan the poet – Pembrokeshire, once called ‘Little England Beyond Wales’ – and Cardiganshire, its wilder, ragged character, wind-bent coastal trees and moor-like appearance, so well captured by the illustrators of the old Shell Guides.

The counties’ confluence is more or less pinpointed at Cenarth Falls, a rocky, densely-wooded gorge hewn out of the land by the Teifi. Known for its former culture of coracles and fishermen’s tall-tales, the Teifi is one of the country’s great salmon and sea-trout (sewin, in Welsh) water-courses, although ironically in our age of supposed greater environmental awareness, the river has never suffered from so much pollution.

Nearby, the smaller River Cych flows through woodland straight from the pages of the Mabinogion, or Gerald of Wales’s ecclesiastical tour of Cambria. After heavy rainfall, dozens of tiny streams and springs bubble from the hilly embankment by the lane that winds through the valley; rooks and the occasional red kite seem to brush the tree-tops. Gerald, or Giraldus he styled himself, knew this district – crossing the Teifi with Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, in their quest to rally men to the Cross and to the Crusades.

The Teifi in spate at Cenarth. Image: Derek Turner

In their travels, the churchmen unearthed many oddities of folklore, not least the tale of a young man who discovered the entrance to a fairy world, but who enraged its inhabitants by stealing treasure from their subterranean kingdom. In fury, the fairies pursued him, retrieving what was theirs, but when he tried to return to the crevice in the earth – the gateway to the hidden realm – all traces of it had disappeared. But, after all these centuries, does another entrance exist? Close to the Teifi, a curious pool may offer an answer…

The home of the Tylwyth Teg? Image: Stuart Millson

Said to be fathomless, the pool (on private land) looks to be the result of floodwater that has spilled over into a small dip of the land by the riverbank. For folklorists, it is a place inhabited by the Cambrian fairy-race, the Tylwyth Teg – the beautiful ones. To this day, some fishermen doff their caps in the direction of the pool, or even offer a libation to the invisible inhabitants. Even unbelievers have spoken of experiencing a peculiar sensation here, of being watched, of someone lurking at the very extremes of their peripheral vision. A few fruit trees stand nearby – the land’s previous owner trimming their branches on a sunny afternoon, remarking how he felt his every move being studied, but not another human soul in sight.

A much more tangible lost world exists on the northerly bank of the river. Like an industrial leyline, threading through woods and knotted thickets long since rewilded by the hand of Nature, runs the trackbed of the old Great Western Railway. Occasionally, from the road (perhaps only a temporary victor over the railway?) the once-neat embankment comes into view, on which the freight of milk churns, coal, and the county solicitor on his rounds, would all trundle by. And if you look carefully into woodland, the bridges which upheld the single track over difficult dips in the terrain are still visible. Weeds and vegetation drip from the stonework – forlorn remnants of steam and country branchlines, ‘henges’ of the railway age, dotted through Cambria.

Forlorn viaduct of the Great Western Railway. Image: Stuart Millson

The district was also known for its many waterside mills, now as silent as the Cornish coastal tin mines, or the colliery wheels of south Wales. One village, Drefach Felindre, was even likened to Huddersfield, so impressive was its industry and wool-making. Some 12 miles away, Cardigan’s quayside, once banked up by trading vessels, still retains some sense of old importance as the Teifi estuary’s commercial port. 

Here in Wales, unlike in south-east England, structures of old industry still stand, symbols of an age long gone, but not beyond recall – an age you somehow feel could be reclaimed. So enduring are the foundations of everything, in this land of long memories.

Keys to the past – Restoration in Rochester

Wenceslaus Hollar, Coronation Procession of Charles II Through London, 1662
STUART MILLSON visits one of Kent’s great houses – and savours a perfect choice of music

On the eve of his royal return and progress from Dover to London in 1660, the heir to the throne, the second Charles Stuart, paused for rest at the City of Rochester on the River Medway. He stayed in an Elizabethan mansion built in 1587, on a gradient just above Rochester’s main thoroughfare – a stately town abode that took the name, Restoration House, in honour of the great event that would soon be formally confirmed by the English state

Today, some 360 years since that first visit, Restoration House continues to project and transmit an aura of history to its many visitors, thanks to the care, custodianship and ownership of patrons of the arts, Jonathan Wilmot and Robert Tucker. On Saturday 7th October, these renaissance and restoration gentlemen hosted a recital by the emerging eminence that is harpsichordist, Nathaniel Mander – a young musician already distinguished by a recording of J.S. Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations, and performances with the celebrated Les Musicians du Louvre and Marc Minkowski. 

In a grand, yet intimate candlelit room, accessed by an ascent of a wooden staircase (upon which a ghost must surely walk past midnight), Mr. Mander performed a recital of harpsichord pieces, from Frescobaldi and Froberger in the middle of the 17th century, to Bach and Handel, a century later. But at the centre of the concert, echoes of Tudor and Elizabethan England abounded, in the form of Grounds, Almans and Fantasias by the masters of that first English musical renascence, Byrd and Gibbons.

The audience was particularly delighted by the soloist’s engaging introductory mini-talk before each work, a sometimes humorous, neat lacing-up of the historical context of the music – none so remarkable as Johan Jakob Froberger’s travels to England, during which he was not only robbed on a European highway, but intercepted by pirates at sea, thus arriving at the royal court in little more than rags donated by sailors. Froberger had to play some music before his Royal hosts believed who he was.

Historical authenticity was very much the lodestar of the evening – Nathaniel performing on Restoration House’s Zenti Harpsichord of 1658, an instrument once in the possession of and adapted to the needs of Queen Christina of Sweden (r.1632-1654). The craftsmanship which created the instrument remains a thing of wonder – a work of art itself, a piece of furniture so delicate, it seemed almost dangerous to walk near it. Yet Nathaniel Mander drew from the elegantly-turned casket on its delicate, spindly legs sounds of such antique quality, that audience members – judging from their closed eyes and expressions of sheer peace – seemed transported to the candlelit past.

For me, two of the highlights were the Ground by Thomas Tomkins and Nathaniel’s first encore to the evening’s proceedings, the Aria to Bach’s Goldberg Variations ~ the five-minute meditation that forms the beginning and end to the piece. For Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) church music was a lifelong calling. From his early days at St. Davids, Pembrokeshire, to his life in the service of Worcester Cathedral (during which time he endured the ravages of the Civil War), Tomkins came to signify all that we understand by the English ecclesiastical choral tradition – anthems, pieces for services, which rely so much on great spans of sound (the imprint of Tallis and Byrd) and which, centuries later, would continue through Parry, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Howells. Yet we discovered from Nathaniel that following the destruction of the Tomkins home in a Civil War bombardment, the composer – taken in by kind friends – sought solace in the writing of dozens of pieces for harpsichord. An English melancholy was certainly conjured by our soloist in the Tomkins Ground.

However, happier thoughts were prompted by the inclusion of Byrd’s folk-based airs, The Woods So Wilde and Selingers Round; music which, along with a spirited Allegro by a gourmandising Handel, provided an uplifting, animating spirit to a memorable oak-brown October evening.

Nathaniel Mander is artist-in-residence at Restoration House. His recording of Bach’s Goldberg Vatiations is available on the ICSM label

Italian light, and Nordic darkness

Image: Stuart Millson
STUART MILLSON (celebrating his 43rd season) reports from the 2023 Proms

‘Where are the Proms of my youth?’ asked Barrie Hall’s now almost forgotten book, The Proms and the Men Who Made Them – a title that would be unlikely to pass the sensitivity readers of today’s London publishers. When I first attended the Proms, one joined a queue (along with all the other sixth-formers and undergrads) for the Gallery or Arena. You paid your few pounds at a little booking-office-type hole on the south side of the Royal Albert Hall and in you went. For the Last Night, people camped outside on the pavement near the Hall’s South Steps for two weeks, just to ensure a place on the front rail of the Arena, or close to it. Today, Promenaders no longer queue up: you book your Arena or Gallery ticket online. And the Last Night camp was abolished years ago, on health and safety grounds.

There have been changes in the repertoire and in presentation: this season, the BBC Concert Orchestra collaborated in a Northern Soul Prom – something that would have been virtually unheard of in the days of past Controllers of Music and Directors of the Proms (although Soft Machine did manage to creep in under Sir William Glock’s radar in 1971). Have such initiatives opened up the Proms to a younger audience? I am not sure. In 1983, the Arena was composed of 75% youth, 25% oldies. The ratio seems to have reversed. So more work needs to be done – perhaps more classical music, less Northern Soul, or at least another type of soul from the North.

Sir William Walton. Image: NPG (Wikimedia Commons)

For the 3rd August Prom, given by the BBC Philharmonic (formerly, BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra), Oldham-born William Walton (1902-83) provided the centrepiece of the concert, in the form of his Violin Concerto of 1939 – a work inspired by the composer’s abiding love for Italy and its riviera. Tinged with Mediterranean sunsets and shadows, and containing many moments of deep lyrical introspection and unbridled romanticism, the Concerto nevertheless provides some ferociously exciting and incisive sections for both soloist and orchestra. Playing the solo part that night was Manitoba-born James Ehnes – a musician renowned for his interpretation of Walton – and one who finds the true measure of a composer too often seen as something of a steely recluse, but who, in his heyday, was a determined, passionate and often avant-garde figure.

The Violin Concerto (like the stormy First Symphony written some four years earlier) has a surprise up its sleeve for the listener – a break from all the heavy preceding passion via a ‘presto’ movement, laced with a dash of jabbing, smirking, sardonic humour; softened by a waltzy, Neopolitan dance rhythm – the effect, like a generous glug of wine tipped into a glass during a fiesta. The movement, though, also broadens out into a serious nocturne: dreamy, intense; the dissatisfied Englishman abroad sinking into his local surroundings, yet thinking (perhaps) of glimpses of home. But for Walton after the Second World War, ‘home’ ceased to be England; with his new Argentinian wife, the composer turned his back on queues and nationalisation, settling on the little isle of Ischia out in the Bay of Naples. Continuing to compose, he produced such fine pieces as his Cello Concerto and a grand opera, but never quite recapturing the ardour and brilliantly-written soundscape of the Violin Concerto. As author Laurie Lee once observed: “All the great hymns to the sun are written in cold garrets.” When you are in the sun, you just… sit in the sunshine.

Image: Daniel Nyblin (Wikimedia Commons)

Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 ended the concert. In a lifespan similar to that of Vaughan Williams, Sibelius lived from the era of empires and Grand Duchies, to the atomic age and world order of the United Nations. Yet throughout the changes remained rooted to a vision – and a physical reality – of an unchanging landscape and heritage. In his music, Nordic deities make brief, spectral appearances through endless pine woods; swans in flight sweep like angels across frozen lakes, on corridors of cold air – and at night, bards tell tales of heroes and worlds gone by. The First Symphony comes from 1900 – or rather, it was revised in that year, because it is essentially a late-19th-century piece, influenced by the dense harmonies of Tchaikovsky, but still (in the opening movement) showing signs of the fleeting, sparkling, supernatural Northern Lights that characterise the fully-individual works that would come – the kind of delicate, subliminal Nordic Impressionism of, say, the Sixth Symphony. Conducted by the Finnish maestro, John Storgards, both Walton and Sibelius found a worthy interpreter.

Just a word about the opening piece, Kafka’s Earplugs (a BBC commission for Irish contemporary composer, Gerald Barry, born 1952). Not even the Kafka title and the composer’s self-described “sense of humour, which I obey” could rescue this ten-minute monotony – and mediocrity. As the piece ended, one member of the audience shouted: “Total rubbish!” Who are we to disagree? 

Passport to rebirth

STUART MILLSON says a Scottish National Party idea suggests a way to preserve the Union

The resignation of the SNP First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon – welcomed by relieved unionists, lamented by Scottish secessionists (some in tears during interviews on television news) – has brought the relationship between the countries of the United Kingdom again into the centre of political debate. 

Following the recent Supreme Court ruling that Holyrood did not have the right to initiate a second referendum on independence, an SNP conference scheduled for March has been cancelled. Nicola Sturgeon, standard-bearer of the paradoxical cause of an independent nation within the EU, who just six months ago proclaimed that “we are the independence generation”, has now effectively signalled the end of that euphoric period for Scottish nationalism.

Today, Scottish secessionists are pondering, not the arrangements for a forthcoming re-run of the 2014 vote (a result they have spent the greater part of the last nine years denying) but the question of who can possibly fill the vacancy created by Nicola Sturgeon’s departure. This is quite a change from the SNP’s triumphalism and optimism of 2022, when Holyrood’s civil servants were producing public briefing papers on ‘life outside the UK’ – even exhibiting artwork for a new Scottish passport, with accompanying plans for Scottish embassies to open around the world. However, in their zeal to create a distinctive Scottish identity, maybe the SNP has inadvertently stumbled upon the very ideas that could re-equip the Union with the tools and ideals necessary for its rebirth.

Would not a redesigned UK passport, bearing stirring emblems of the heraldry and history of all the Kingdom’s constituent nations, help assuage regional tensions? Couldn’t portraits of, say, Robert the Bruce or Rabbie Burns, not reassure understandably proud Scots that their country had not disappeared in 1707? Likewise, the establishment of Scottish embassies may not be too fanciful an idea: Montreal’s flag flies from grand offices in London’s Pall Mall, just a short stroll from Canada House – recognition that a French nation exists alongside the English-speaking land of the Maple Leaf.

West of the River Severn, no calls have yet been made for specifically Welsh embassies, but the issuing of UK-Welsh banknotes – say, Owain Glyndwr charging across a mountainous scene on £20 denominations – could help three million people in this corner of the realm to see that their nation’s life did not end with the incursions of mediaeval English armies. Welshmen and women can take justifiable pride in their part in shaping the United Kingdom: the Tudor dynasty originating in Cambria, David Lloyd George leading us to victory in the First World War, and the summit of the world, Mount Everest, bearing the name of a man born in Powys.

In Northern Ireland, too, couldn’t a new provincial flag – the shamrock, harp and the Crown, perhaps, maybe even images of moderate Home Rulers and patriot idealists of the past (for example, John Redmond, or W B Yeats) – help to heal rifts and, more importantly, encourage Irish nationalists to see that they can have an honoured place in the UK? 

Celts can, at least, take pleasure in the fact that so much effort is being directed to their well-being: the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons, it should be remembered, are the one group who, in this kaleidoscope of devolution, do not have their own assembly. The English are very forbearing about this democratic deficit; a further willingness to allow our fellow-Britons with whom we have such inextricably linked histories to celebrate their ancient achievements and national heroes alongside ours would be a characteristically generous gesture. It could also be a long-sighted one – and a catalyst for a troubled Kingdom’s rebirth.

Overlooked Orpheans

STUART MILLSON enjoys some neglected gems of British music

Why does the spiritual toll of the Great War seem to have been harsher for Britain than for any of the other European combatants, asks organist, scholar, music-writer Robert James Stove, in commentary for a booklet which accompanies a new CD on the Australian Ars Organi label. His answer is clear and convincing: ‘… the innate stability of British political institutions meant a lack of opportunities for citizens to work off their war-neuroses by revolutionary activism, as agitators did on the Continent.’ Only in a marginal way did iconoclasm and an avant-garde spirit affect Britain, post-Passchendaele: for every Vorticist there was a Vaughan Williams offering benediction, although few realised that the composer’s Pastoral Symphony of 1922 was inspired by his own experiences of service on the Western Front. (Listen more closely to the ghostly, wordless voice in the unsettling final movement…)

The new recording, a superb audio curation of British music made in the magnificent acoustic of Our Lady of Victories Basilica, Camberwell, Victoria, Australia, assembles less-well-known names from the canon of Albion’s musical renascence. Alongside John Ireland and Vaughan Williams, for example, are Thomas F. Dunhill (excerpts from his Three Chiddingfold Pieces), Sir Walter Galpin Alcock (Westminster Abbey organist at three coronations during the high-tide of Empire) and Alan Gray (successor to Stanford in the organ loft at Trinity College, Cambridge).

All works and composers chosen by the Ars Organi Recordings for this collection have in common a profound attachment to English tonality (although Norman Fulton, at CD track 11, is a Scot). It is as if the music of our islands is a mirror-image of the (physical and psychological) architecture of the very institutions that have long-governed us. The slow-breathing, hushed voices of churchgoers, a ray of wintry light, piercing through a cathedral window like a gimlet; a sense of eyes being drawn toward the pinnacle of a Norman arch – these are some of the feelings and imaginings inspired by many of the works, some of which are ethereally-enhanced by the participation of singers Elizabeth Barrow (soprano), Brigette De Poi and Emily Tam (mezzo-sopranos), Leighton Triplow (tenor) and bass, James Emerson.

John Ireland’s The Holy Boy and a George Herbert setting (The Call) from Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs are probably the best-known pieces in the entire collection. Peter Warlock’s old English carol, Adam lay Ybounden, also finds an occasional place in concerts and Radio 3 schedules. But who knows the music of the composer, whose work concludes the CD: Geoffrey Turton Shaw? A near-contemporary of Vaughan Williams, he served as a school inspector and was himself schooled by that master of church music, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Setting Milton, Ring outye crystal spheres/Once bless our human ears… Turton Shaw embodies all the virtues of his genre and world, confirming the past, present and future solidity of English music.

The music of a Welshman, Daniel Jones (1912-1993) makes up another important collection of lesser-known music from our shores, in a well-presented four-disc set from Lyrita Recorded Edition. Many will remember the remarkable ground-breaking Lyrita vinyls of old: symphonies by Bax and Rubbra, John Ireland songs, The Magic Island by William Alwyn, and a record that particularly caught my eye when I first came across it in the record department of Foyles, some 40 years ago – Ireland’s Forgotten RiteLegendMaiDun and Satyricon – with its strange, haunting cover-artwork; a picture which hinted at the form of a landscape, with dotted colours and distances just out of reach. In fact, if I were to try to find a simple, neat description of Daniel Jones’s music, it would come close to those suggestions inspired by the Ireland graphics – although this enigmatic composer (a code-breaker during World War Two) never really embraced, at least self-consciously, folklore and the symbolism of place. He tended to think of himself as a composer who happened to come from Wales, rather than an artist who had a civic responsibility to proclaim a culture – although he did write a major choral-orchestral piece, The Country Beyond the Stars, which – post-Festival of Britain – seemed to have an ambience of dreamy peninsular coasts, beacons and Black Mountains.

Perhaps the nearest he came to a home-spirit, an imprint of Welshness, was in his Dance Fantasy, performed at the 1982 Proms by the (then) BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra under Bryden Thomson – although the work still seemed somewhat set apart from Welsh dances and Celtic legends by fellow-countrymen Hoddinott, Mathias and Arwel Hughes. And it was at this concert that I briefly met the musician… As I walked around the hall at the end of the evening, making my way back to the tube station and suburbia, I spied the bespectacled composer (this one-time friend of Dylan Thomas) at the Royal Albert Hall Artists’ Entrance. Venturing over, I asked for an autograph, which was cheerfully forthcoming and written in a neat, methodical hand, with a fountain pen. An avuncular, slightly diminutive figure, Daniel Jones seemed very pleased by the performance of his own music at the Proms. (It has to be said, the Proms Planning Department has been less than generous to the composers of Wales.)

Lyrita’s new CD collection puts the music of Jones and Cambria very much on the map. Pianist Martin Jones has spent many hours in the National Library of Wales, painstakingly uncovering an almost Bach-like progression, cycle, abundance of piano works, from a neatly-crafted Capriccio of 1934, to the much more ambitious (“big stride”, was the composer’s own description) ThemeVariations and Fugue in C-sharp minor, dated 1945 – the year of Britten’s Peter Grimes and the advent of the Attlee era. Tonal, but sometimes wandering away from those clear lines; meditative, but never obscurely introverted, Daniel Jones created, it seems, pure music, for its own sake. Rigorous, never arduous, and always making the listener wonder what the next piece will bring.

A great deal of the composer’s character is also suggested by some of the photographic portraits featured in Lyrita’s CD booklet, not least the final black-and-white plate: Dan Jones, with benevolent eyes and a grin, partly concealed by the pint of bitter he is bringing to his lips. A good Welsh brew, no doubt.

CD details

Undertones of War, British Organ and Vocal Music After 1918. Robert James Stove, organ. Ars Organi, AOR004

Daniel Jones, Rediscovered Piano Works, Martin Jones, piano. Lyrita, SRCD.2396