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

Summer with the Sinfonia

Tintagel. Photo: Chris Gunn. Wikimedia Commons
STUART MILLSON enjoys a super-orchestra’s seasonal offerings

The re-formed Sinfonia of London (a recording and film-score orchestra of the 1960s) appeared at the Proms on Saturday 16th July under the baton of the ever-popular John Wilson, for a concert of music by British composers. The programme was made up of Vaughan Williams’ 1910 Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Welsh composer, Huw Watkins’s new Flute Concerto, the Partita by Walton, Bax’s 1917 Arthurian tone-poem, Tintagel, and Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’ of 1899.

The Sinfonia is a handpicked, super-orchestra – a superior “scratch-band” of top freelancers, players drawn from existing orchestras and even members of string quartets and chamber groups, dedicated to reviving the idea of “demonstration sound quality”, i.e. dazzling, virtuoso performance, chiefly in a studio setting. A previous example of this type of ensemble was the old National Philharmonic Orchestra, which appeared on the RCA label and notched up some notable recordings, often under conductors such as the suave American, Charles Gerhardt. But to have real life and vigour, an orchestra must play in public, so what better arena for publicising the dynamic stage presence of your orchestra than at the Proms on a Saturday evening, right at the beginning of the season?

Thomas Tallis

And what finer non-ecclesiastical setting for a cathedral-inspired piece, such as the Tallis Fantasia, than the Royal Albert Hall, in which John Wilson cleverly created antiphonal special effects by placing part of his string band in a line, high on the right at the rear of the platform? The two bodies of strings answered each other: the music moving across the centuries, from Tallis’s Elizabethan sound-world of church voices, to the well-upholstered, romantic early 20th-century string writing of Vaughan Williams. 

Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1898. British Library. Wikimedia Commons

The one new work in the programme, the Huw Watkins Flute Concerto also suited the hall’s great acoustic – a beautifully air-borne thing and (for this reviewer) strangely reminiscent of a scene from the Ken Loach film, Kes, about a boy from a deprived background, spiritually rescued by a chance ownership of a hawk. In the film, there is a moving scene where the boy takes his kestrel to a field at the edge of the northern town in which he little more than exists, and flies him with all the skill of a mediaeval falconer. The bird takes to the wing, accompanied by flute music, neither tuneful nor atonal, which seems to represent freedom, air, longing, space. All of those qualities were to be found in the Huw Watkins piece, played by distinguished soloist, Adam Walker.

The great (literally) landmark work of the evening was the 1917 tone-poem by Englishman and also Celtic enthusiast, Arnold Bax, Tintagel. The composer visited the dreamy north Cornwall coast with his mistress, fellow musician Harriet Cohen, and found deep escapism and solace in the ancient surroundings of rocky coast and the ever-present gentle, heaving breast of the sleepy Atlantic. The work begins in pure, clear-blue summertime, but as Bax pointed out in an explanation of the piece, not a windless day.

John Wilson’s orchestra began their evocation with gentle, dreamy woodwind conjuring a feeling of sea-birds and distances. The growing swell of the sea against the rocky sentinels of Cornwall’s headlands was beautifully executed in the surging, strong, cohesive orchestral tide of sound created by the Sinfonia. But just as quickly as the physical setting of Cornwall has been established, Bax then begins to dissolve it all, with the supernatural drama of the ancient kings, Arthur and Mark, and the destructive, legendary love of Tristan and Isolde – the latter, a symbol of Bax’s own romantic entanglement. The composer wrote several Celtic-folklore-inspired pieces and seven impressive, well-orchestrated symphonies (the Fourth being the most radiant and most-often played, although an outing for a Bax symphony is still a rare occasion). 

What Tintagel represents is a (nearly) fifteen minutes-long condensed symphony – a clear, concise distillation of some of the more long-winded ideas which all long symphonic structures have, but which in the case of this piece are assembled with utterly persuasive and spellbinding cohesion and power. Not a note is wasted in Tintagel: there is a beginning, middle and an end, and like Sibelius’s The Oceanides (a tone-poem of some ten minutes), a listener or concertgoer can instantly know the composer just from this one calling-card piece.

With instantly recognisable pieces in mind, the concert concluded with Walton’s shimmering, Italianate Partita, written in the Mediterranean sun and siesta of the late 1950s – and Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, (‘Enigma’), penned at the end of the 19th century, but looking forward with masterful confidence to a new century and (for Elgar) new successes and untold honours. Again, the Sinfonia of London matched the mood, its players responding with great physical commitment to the scores of these British giants; men whose music, in different ways, captured the spirit of our native music.

Skara Brae on the Orkneys. Photo: Daniel Bordeleau. Wikimedia Commons

Yet what really is our native music? – as BBC Radio 3’s Tom Service (a Scot) asked in the evening’s programme notes. Slightly dismissive of the insularity of the land “sandwiched between Hadrian’s Wall and the South Coast” (his words), the writer nevertheless correctly noted the way in which our music has transcended the country’s physical boundaries. However, metropolitan observers should not be so quick to dismiss country cottages and “folky-wolky melodies”. As Vaughan Williams pointed out, all great universal art is rooted in a place, whether Bach’s Lutheran northern Germany, or the Spain of Velazquez. And as Tom Service should know, modern composer Peter Maxwell Davies, who settled in the Orkney Islands, immersed himself in a Scottish island identity, garnering, like a beachcomber, every conceivable Orcadian cadence, myth into his music, showing just how powerful “insularity” can be as a creative inspiration.

The capacity audience at the Royal Albert Hall, not a bit dissuaded by the Met. Office’s red-alert, heat-wave weather warnings, gave the performers a typical Proms ovation. And John Wilson gave them in return, one more piece – an encore from Eric Coates’s Summer Days suite, a nostalgic, innocent waltz. Judging by the overflowing applause, it is a world that still means something to so many.

From The Cruel Sea to St. Trinian’s…

Still from ‘The Cruel Sea’ (1953)
STUART MILLSON revels in British film music at the Proms

It seems unthinkable that a Proms season in peacetime would have to be abandoned, but this is almost what happened last year at the height of the Covid pandemic. With much-reduced orchestras – their players spread widely across an extended Royal Albert Hall platform in order to preserve social distancing – the BBC resolutely produced a Proms 2020, but with the stalls, arena, gallery and boxes of the great Hall empty. The Prommers had to content themselves with listening to the skeleton season on Radio 3, or watching the proceedings on BBC Four television. But it was better than nothing.

This year, audiences returned, but on the basis that concertgoers showed evidence of a double Covid vaccination, or a negative test for the virus. And even then, the famous Proms queues, the pre-concert drinks, atmosphere and general buzz of the season – little of what we understand by this remarkable and long-established music festival existed.

Doreen Carwithen (Mary Alwyn)

On the 2nd September your reviewer ventured into London to enjoy a Prom given by the 60-strong BBC Concert Orchestra, possibly the most versatile orchestra to be employed by the BBC – covering the classical repertoire (often lighter or more recondite works); show music and the songs of theatreland; and even touching upon jazz and pop. For my evening, the BBC CO conveyed its audience through the Odeon doors and into the world of British film music, beginning with Doreen Carwithen (real name, Mary Alwyn) and her overture to the 1954 film, The Men of Sherwood. What a good choice: asplendid curtain-raiser which immediately lifted the spirits of the 2,000 people present; the music immediately taking everyone away from their Covid concerns and back into a world of Lincoln green and derring-do. Carwithen’s overture was reminiscent of her better-known Suffolk Suite, an effective piece of scene painting – with rhapsodic evocations of the English landscape mixed with trumpets and brass, as men of valour meet in combat on battlements.

The programme notes for the evening tended to be a little sniffy about the quality of the film – underlining the point by reproducing the original theatrical poster from the time, and referring to “scrappily-drawn faux mediaeval title cards” and “an illuminated manuscript of the lowest wattage”. A trifle harsh, perhaps – given the general good intentions of the film-makers, who in those days at least tried to celebrate our English past. In fact, there is much reassurance in the mythical country evoked by the props and artwork on the 1950s. In our age of political correctness, it is encouraging that such images should have been dusted down and brought out before an audience.

Similar notions of the countryside and olde England were also found in one of the major items on the bill: Vaughan Williams’s Three Portraits from the England of Elizabeth, the result of the composer’s collaboration with nationalised British Railways. Just as the travel poster was used in the 1930s to inspire holidaymakers to head for the ‘Cornish Riviera’ or the breathtaking Lakeland, the 1950s embraced the technology of the in-house film unit – the perfect opportunity for composers to earn money quickly (instead of waiting for an orchestra to include their new work in a Festival Hall programme). And so, Vaughan Williams’s style – a gracious blend of Tudor-infused tone-painting, with the echo of the village green never far away – proved to be the ideal accompaniment to British Transport’s public information films. Yet played on their own in the concert hall (with the listener, perhaps not even aware of how they were commissioned or written), the ‘Three Portraits’ could very easily have been a short, long-lost folk symphony by Vaughan Williams.

Alan Rawsthorne, William Alwyn and Malcolm Arnold were also dominant figures in the film industry and it was fascinating to hear – live – Rawsthorne’s dark score to The Cruel Sea (1953) which starred Jack Hawkins and told the story of the Battle of the Atlantic. Rawsthorne is hardly ever played these days in his own native Britain, the Second Piano Concerto surfacing, perhaps, every 30 years at the Proms. It is high time for a re-evaluation of this masterful composer, capable of bringing a psychological sense of sea warfare and the limitless ocean into a conventional British war film.

Is there a tendency for film music to be bitty? Not so, in the case of William Alwyn’s truly large-scale symphonic contribution to the 1947 Carol Reed production, Odd Man Out – the tense, anguished story of an Irish nationalist (named Johnny McQueen) injured, and on the run through the mean streets of Belfast. Again, here is an example of music that could easily have been the first movement of a symphony: Alwyn conceiving large, heavily-woven expanses of ideas – with much complicated development, instead of simply relying on a simple, repetitive theme for the film-goer. A satisfying span of gripping, tragic proportions.

Peter Cushing in ‘The Skull’

The most avant garde work of the evening was the Elisabeth Lutyens score for the 1965 Peter Cushing film, The Skull, made in 1965. Not afraid to produce haunting sounds, by using modernist techniques, Lutyens could almost be described as an English (female) Bela Bartok. A strange, disjointed, disharmony at the edge of tonality brings to life the occult world of Peter Cushing’s obsessive character, Dr. Christopher Maitland – the Proms programme editor finding a marvellous still from the film: Cushing staring into the eye sockets of the Marquis de Sade’s skull.

Finally, a complete change in mood – the BBC Concert Orchestra bringing the house down with the skittish score by Malcolm Arnold for The Belles of St. Trinian’s: a dazzling, tongue-in-cheek, belly-laugh of an extravanganza, complete with shifty ‘Flash Harry’s’ furtive schemes (played to perfection by the great George Cole); and all the unleashed anarchy of the worst girls’ school in cinematic Britain (headed by the ever-so-slightly alarming Alistair Sim as ‘Miss Fritton’). Arnold had the rare ability to match the mood of so many productions, from war stories to comedies, but succeeding in everything he did because of his limitless, lyrical self-confidence, mastery of the orchestra, and refusal to see anything in conventional terms. It is possible to say that without Arnold’s dizzying, barrier-breaking sound-world – music that is the equivalent of a downing a treble gin and tonic in the company of the best British comedy actors of the ’50s – The Belles of St. Trinian’s might not have been the classic that it became.

The BBC Concert Orchestra marched us out of the Royal Albert Hall with a rousing film encore – again by Malcolm Arnold, the unforgettable Bridge on the River Kwai, with conductor, Bramwell Tovey, making sure that everyone clapped and whistled along to that famous evocation of parade-ground swagger and cheerful British heroism, ‘Colonel Bogey’.