ENDNOTES, February 2017
In this edition: L’Heure Romantique, from Varda Kotler * Heracleitus, from EM Records * William Alwyn Quartets, from Somm
“Music unfolds within it all that is humane: spiritually uplifting… I discovered great humanity in the selected melodies. A musical journey amid these melodies reveals that each of them is a microcosm with its own unique character.”
So writes the brilliant Israeli recitalist and operatic singer, Varda Kotler – a native of Tel Aviv and a graduate of that city’s prestigious Rubin Academy of Music. With a repertoire that ranges from the decidedly quirky, 20th-century re-imagined folk-songs of Luciano Berio, to the great classical masses of Mozart and Bach, Varda Kotler brings a stunning versatility to her work, which is fully displayed on her new CD collection, L’Heure Romantique. Accompanied by the gifted pianist, Israel Kastoriano (known for his appearances at Tanglewood, the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall – and for his interpretations of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier) the programme brings together the perfumed classical romanticism of Bizet – Ma vie a son secret and Rose d’amour (a deft Tarantelle also evoking the world of Carmen) with the Mahlerian woodland nocturnes and legends of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
There is also music very much in the Jewish idiom (by Paul Ben-Haim), some Schumann (the beautiful Abendlied op. 107 – “It has become so still; the evening breeze has dropped; now in every place the footsteps of angels can be heard”), the high-hills and ancient dialects of Canteloube’s Auvergne, and reposeful 17th-century Englishness – Purcell’s Music for a while. But what unites every item and era into a logical, continuous experience is the sheer beauty of the performance: Varda Kotler sings with a silken radiance – a voice of intimacy, and yet clearly a voice that can project, but without a trace of any shrillness or over-emphasis.
To make sense of Purcell’s work is a rare accomplishment at the best of times (this is the music of the English court and country, requiring, perhaps, an empathy with historical context and an understanding of “atmosphere”) and it is particularly exciting to see such an international artist of the younger generation (no doubt keen to make a name in the “central repertoire” of Bach, Mozart, or mainstream opera) take to this rare brew. I very much hope to see and hear Varda Kotler on the British concert stage, and for anyone planning an English musical evening – but with a desire to see our music travel a little more – they would do well to sign this enchanting vocalist at the earliest opportunity. L’Heure Romantique is now available on the Forlane record label (catalogue number: FOR 16878).
Musical discoveries abound on the EM Records label – the recording arm of the English Music Festival – and, once again, founder-producer Em Marshall-Luck has brought us to a rescued repertoire which, but for her efforts, might have faced oblivion: rare compositions by George Butterworth – the 1910 Suite for String Quartet (performed by the Bridge Quartet) – taking the listener to the twilight valleys inhabited by Shropshire lads; and dusty village streets of western, borderland England. Butterworth, killed in World War One, might well have become the new Vaughan Williams, the successor to Holst, the younger, brilliant son of our musical family; and could have emerged and entered his old age as one of the giants of our musical tradition. Usually defined only by the short orchestral work, The Banks of Green Willow, and the slighter longer, more concentrated and brooding rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad, Butterworth has – thanks to Em Marshall-Luck’s scholarship and dedication to uncovering obscure manuscripts and works – found a new voice, both in the concert hall and on record.
Yet this new EM Records disc – Heracleitus – owes its name to an almost forgotten song by Peter Warlock (here receiving its world-premiere recording) – Warlock (1894-1930) being, perhaps, one of the first English minimalists – or at least, a composer able to concentrate profound sensitivity and emotion into sparse and sparing spans of music. We chiefly remember the refreshing Suite, Capriol – based upon ancient airs and dances – and the slanting light of desolate marshland in The Curlew; but in the song, Heracleitus, the listener encounters a timeless whisper of human truth from classical antiquity, reverently delivered by tenor, Charles Daniels:
‘They told me, Heracleitus, they told
Me you were dead;
They brought me bitter news to hear
And bitter tears to shed;
I wept, as I remembered, how often
You and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.”
(W.J. Cory (1823-92), after Callimachus (3rd century BC.)
Warlock lived for a time in the North Kent village of Eynsford, which even today (despite traffic) is a reassuringly old-fashioned place, standing beside and fording the clear stream of the River Darenth, overlooked by downland and willows. A blue plaque at the cottage which he shared in the 1920s with fellow composer, E.J. Moeran commemorates his time there – and by all accounts (“with the kitchen swimming in beer”) it was a jolly, bohemian existence. Yet a simplicity is found in Warlock’s music: wistful phrases, beautiful and touching, yet slipping away into a feeling that the composer is longing for something unattainable.
For Gloucestershire-born Ivor Gurney (who physically survived service in the First World War) his county roots remained one of the constant elements in his troubled life – a life that was to end in 1937 just a few miles from Warlock’s Eynsford, in an asylum in Dartford. The CD offers the world-premiere recording of the Adagio, dating from 1924, and the touching song, Severn Meadows – an idyll of a lost countryside, the reassurance of which is seen from the grim war year of 1917:
“And who loves joy as he
That dwells in shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
O Severn Meadows.”
Finally, to another English discovery, this time from Somm Records and producer, Siva Oke. The Tippett Quartet appears on one of her recent CD issues (the label now sporting a new logo, and – if I may observe – a striking new look). Recorded at St. Nicholas Parish Church, Thames Ditton, the recording features three quartets from the 20th-century British composer, William Alwyn – who lived for a great period of his life at Southwold, Suffolk (just north of Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh). Alwyn was a prolific composer, and wrote many film scores, including a compelling accompaniment to the thoughtful wartime documentary/propaganda film, Our Country. (Dylan Thomas supplied the words.) He composed symphonies and a set of Elizabethan Dances – whose contrasting idioms evoke the eras of the two Elizabeths.
Alwyn’s music, even when wading more deeply into 20th-century waters (as in the symphonies), manages to keep to a recognisable tonality – a trait which is very clearly felt in the three string quartets which grace this disc: No. 10 (En Voyage), No. 13, and – my personal favourite – No. 11 in B minor, a three-movement work composed in 1933. The works embrace many emotions, and in their vivace episodes suggest a sense of powerful spring light sparkling and dancing on choppy tidal water on a sunny day. The Andante section of No. 11 has great depth – even a tragic sense, although it seems as though the composer is trying to keep such feelings within proportion. In other words, his heart is not entirely being worn on his sleeve. And there is something else about the andante – a quite coincidental thing: it has a striking similarity to a phrase from Bernard Herrmann’s score to the Hitchcock film of the late-1950s, Vertigo. Those familiar with this music (this heartache on sparse strings) will hear the likeness.
Siva Oke’s championing of the Alwyn Quartets is to be commended, a welcome spotlight on a composer who deserves to be better known.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
Heracleitus from EM Records, catalogue number: EMR CD036; William Alwyn String Quartets, with the one-movement Fantasia (String Quartet No. 12), SommCD 0165.)