ENDNOTES – Meditative music

ENDNOTES – Meditative music

STUART MILLSON

Rare English sonatas – Beethoven Piano Trios – Piano Concerto by Howard Ferguson – Ikon of Light by John Tavener

Rupert Marshall-Luck (violinist and viola player) is emerging as one of the most dedicated exponents, both in live performance and the recording studio, of rare masterpieces of English chamber music. His latest disc, recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, offers us a completely new repertoire – violin and viola sonatas by Sir Granville Bantock, Cyril Scott and the almost lost name of Roger Sacheverell Coke – played with utter commitment and detail, in first-class sound reproduction.

Channel 4’s Time Team finds lost and forgotten physical treasures from our past: EM Records and the English Music Festival do precisely the same thing, but in the sphere of music. It is no exaggeration to say that this unique campaign for English composers has done more for our national musical heritage than almost any other body.

Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946) belonged to that generation, or tradition, of self-driven romantics, visionaries and aesthetes which has, more or less, completely fizzled out – perhaps the last living figure of that line was the late Sir John Tavener, who died last year. Bantock knew no boundaries in art: he enjoyed dressing up in exotic Eastern costumes, loved walking the wild landscapes of Cornwall and North Wales, drew inspiration from the rich brew of late romanticism – Strauss and Tchaikovsky – responded to legends about Sea Reivers (he wrote an exciting orchestral work of this name), and composed vast, intoxicating scores – even finding a place for Satan! (In music, that is.) Yet Sir Granville cared passionately about music in England, and about the next generation of performers, and for most of his later life (at the Midland Institute and University of Birmingham) presided over what was the first music curriculum in this country.

On this recent issue from EM Records, Rupert Marshall-Luck, accompanied by pianist, Matthew Rickard, plays the Third Violin Sonata (1940), a three-movement structure of great sweep, deep thought, invention, feeling and ideas – and in the second movement, ‘The Dryad’, a dream-like fantasie. As Rupert Marshall-Luck points out in the booklet notes, the work contains “important self-references; the musical notes G and B, standing for the composer’s name” constituting “a musical signature”.

The English composer Cyril Scott, part of Bantock’s generation, was another figure driven by great artistic ideals, innovation and a love of large, complex forms. A mystic, a British version of Scriabin, Scott as a young man was a driving force in contemporary music – and yet pictures taken of him in later life, and accounts of his rare appearances at concerts, suggest a forgotten, possibly even forlorn figure, like some Edwardian military hero fallen on hard times. Fortunately, we can bathe in the sound-world of this once-distinguished and recognised musical pioneer, in the form of the Sonata for Viola and Piano of 1953 – the poignant, darker viola being the ideal solo instrument for a composer who conjured shadows, and a grave, reflective atmosphere in a musical language clearly of the 20th century, but one unscarred by the grinding dissonance of radical, uncompromising modernism. Where lighter ideas do enter, the work still has an overall character of seriousness, yet with vitality and much development of textures and themes, some of which are held, like a long breath – or a deep, self-absorbed thought. The finale puts me in mind of the ending to Bridge’s Cello Sonata: a noble statement, a resolution, almost defiant. Rupert Marshall-Luck’s technical and academic analysis of Scott’s work in the pages of the CD booklet can explain the workings of it all much more effectively than this reviewer, but from a purely listener’s point of view, this is one sonata that deserves and repays many repeat performances.

Finally, Roger Sacheverell Coke (1912-72) seems to lead on where Scott finishes: a bleak landscape evoked in his writing – Coke, an obscure figure, suffering in his life from schizophrenia, and existing as a recluse. Some large-scale works by the composer were performed and broadcast in the 1930s, although most of his work appears to have sunk without trace. But once again, it is a tribute to the belief, tenacity and desire by EM Records to find and restore our musical heritage that we have such intriguing pieces as Coke’s somewhat ghostly four-movement Sonata No. 1 in D minor for Violin and Piano. I use the term “ghostly” as there is a strange, unsettled, sometimes disjointed feeling, verging at times on trauma, running through the work. There is also a phrase in the scherzo movement which reminds me very much of the beginnings of the Dirge from Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings – the section which begins:

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,/Every nighte and alle,/Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte,/And Christe receive thy saule.

We can only hope that the works of Coke, a troubled, sensitive man, will be rediscovered by a new audience willing to take risks and to sample the unorthodox: listeners and concertgoers seeking the excitement of truly new music.

However, if it is an “old master” which you require, live from St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol comes a splendid disc produced by Somm Records of Beethoven’s Trios: the Trio Op.11 for clarinet, cello and piano; the Trio in G major, Op. 121a ‘Kakadu Variations’; and the Trio, Op. 38 for clarinet, cello and piano. Here we enjoy the talents of the Gould Piano Trio – Lucy Gould, violin, Alice Neary, cello, and Benjamin Frith, piano – with Robert Plane, clarinet. Somm’s production is of the very highest order, crisp and clear in tone, especially for the clarinet solo, with the depth of sound that could only come from a venue such as St. George’s, a much-loved institution for Radio 3 lunchtime listeners. This is in fact the third volume in Somm’s Beethoven Trios series. The endless variation, the sheer brio of Beethoven: the Gould Trio pay great homage to the master German composer. A chamber-sized ode to joy – and joyful, involved music-making if ever you could find it.

Somm has also recorded a collection of piano concerto/concertino works by British composers, beginning with the Piano Concerto of 1951 by Belfast-born composer, Howard Ferguson, another name unfamiliar to many listeners – the unfamiliarity resulting from the set-in-their-ways habits, and possibly a sniffy, inverse xenophobia, of many programme planners. Also in the programme is the Concertino by Frederic Austin, and the sleeve note informs us that the origins of the piece are

…shrouded in mystery, and the only clues are that it is dated ‘Aug-Dec 1944’ and that the manuscript full score and orchestral parts are stamped on every page ‘Ealing Film Studios – Music Dept.’

Better known is the beautiful Eclogue by Gerald Finzi, music that for me evokes Edward Thomas’s or Belloc’s “South Country”: a tender, bittersweet thread, even lullaby, for piano and small orchestra, full of a scent of summer on the Downs. Alan Rawsthorne’s rushing and rhythmic, perhaps even flashy in the outer movements, Concerto No. 1 for piano, strings and percussion (about 18 minutes in length) ends the collection; and it is refreshing to hear something other than his Second Piano Concerto, which receives an outing every ten years or so at the Proms. Mark Bebbington is the soloist in all four works (the Rawsthorne and Austin being premiere recordings) – his excellent interpretations accompanied by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Howard Williams. Just one minor point: for these smaller-scale concertos, the CBSO has been pared down in size somewhat, and I have to say that despite their fine playing, I did miss a larger, fuller string sound. An occasionally dry feel to the strings – the microphone too close to the players, possibly – is my only slight criticism.

The last CD to be reviewed in this edition of Endnotes comes from the Gimell record label, and I am grateful for the music PR specialist, Jo Carpenter, for sending it to the QR. Recorded at Merton College Chapel, Oxford in the January of 1984, Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars bring us into the world of meditation, flickering candles, religious icons and incantations, and long arches of sound and silences – the world of the late Sir John Tavener (1944-2013). Tavener drove a Rolls-Royce, enjoyed resting in his deckchair on a summer afternoon and meditating, and was even known to enjoy playing badminton on his garden lawn at midnight. A playboy who converted to the Orthodox Church, Tavener was concerned with eternal, spiritual ‘truth’, or seeking of the truth – a quest which brought the composer to an understanding of and fascination with all religions.

The seven-part Ikon of Light is the main work to be featured on the CD – the Tallis Scholars bringing a piercing, bell-like beauty to Tavener’s visions:

Come, true light./Come, life eternal./Come, hidden mystery./Come, treasure without name./Come, reality beyond all words.

Their perfect diction and ethereal singing also serve Tavener’s setting of William Blake’s The Lamb*, which is the one part of the collection conducted by the composer:

Little lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee? Gave thee life, and bid thee feed/By the stream and o’er the mead;/Gave thee clothing of delight,/Softest clothing, woolly, bright;/Gave thee such a tender voice,/Making all the vales rejoice?

Tavener’s music is heavenly, and although works such as The Lamb have a tenderness and Englishness, the composer seems to have made his own tradition of universalism – his works bringing to mind thoughts of religious worship in ancient Greek churches, or isolation and revelation on a mountain-top in Nepal or Tibet. A CD of miracles, and miraculous sounds…

And Endnotes has many more delights in store: the 23rd of May brings the opening night of the English Music Festival, at Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire (see www.englishmusicfestival.org.uk); and we also have an interview with leading British international conductor, Owain Arwel Hughes CBE, whose Welsh Proms season – packed with classic, romantic favourites – opens in July. A new Sibelius cycle has been recorded by Chandos Records, and we look forward to further CD issues from Em Marshall-Luck at EM Records.

STUART MILLSON is Classical Music Editor of the Quarterly Review

*Recorded at Charterhouse Chapel, Godalming, 4th-5th January 1982

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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