ENDNOTES, October 2014
In this edition: Rachmaninov, Dohnányi and Strauss from Somm Records * Summer music from Judith Bailey * Sacred choral music from St. John’s College, Cambridge
Although Endnotes has avoided “Discs of the month” and other sales-like descriptions, I feel that the latest recording to arrive from Somm Records deserves some sort of special recognition. Pianist, Valerie Tryon (now aged 80, but as a child, one of the youngest students ever to be admitted to the Royal Academy of Music) appears on a CD devoted to three significant, but less frequently performed works: the Piano Concerto No. 1 (1890-1, revised 1917) by Rachmaninov; Richard Strauss’s Burleske for Piano and Orchestra (1890); and the dramatic, melodious, inventive and thoroughly enjoyable Variations on a Nursery Song (1914) by Hungarian composer, Ernst von Dohnányi (1897-1960).
Accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jac van Steen (a Dutch maestro often seen at the Proms, particularly with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales), Valerie Tryon gives a performance of dramatic drive and colour that is never-too-hard, and of romantic, delicate, mood-matching virtuosity that is never-too-overstated. Her tone, her approach to every note, and her clear feeling for this array of late-romantic music seems to be complemented in every way by an RPO sound which seems to “grow” from and around her: the orchestra exuding a warm, euphonious, poised and elegant tone – a weight and a sense of distance and echo, but with clear, sharp brass, and splendid percussion contributions, including a pleasing swish to cymbal clashes, blending into the effortless orchestral wash of colour.
We are familiar, perhaps over-familiar, with Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, although I much prefer the longer, more thoughtful, more saga-like Third. Rarely does the First Concerto enjoy an outing, and perhaps it is the slightly less “fluent” or sure-footed – less gradually-unfolding nature of the work that accounts for this. The opening, for example, is abrupt, and the piece never quite seems to settle – as is witnessed by the jumpy and nervous, but nevertheless bold announcement of the final movement theme. And yet there are exciting passages and great moments for a great soloist, such as Valerie Tryon, to seize upon: dynamic and attention-grabbing sequences, with all the intensity, passion and also “Russian gloom” that informs all of Rachmaninov’s works.
The Richard Strauss Burleske is also played well, but I must confess to not liking the work as much as anything else on the disc. As Richard Strauss goes, this 20-minute piece does not seem to be particularly characteristic of the composer (we think of his blood-curdling Salome, or the opulent, rich, more 20th-century symphonic writing): in fact, the Burleske could almost be by Liszt, whose inspiration and example were never far away from the younger Strauss. But for sheer individual quality and wit, it is the Dohnányi that crowns Valerie Tryon’s Somm collection: the composer’s Introduzione, statement-of-theme and then eleven variations on the nursery rhyme tune, which we all know and recognise as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”. At first, the Maestoso opening – as grand as anything in serious, romantic music – makes us believe that we are in the company of a thundering old-school Wagnerian, fond of portentous gestures. And then, a drum stroke (which shakes you), and cymbal clash that crashes out of your speakers and slices into your ears, leads into the soft-in-heart, nostalgic old nursery tune. This moment, with its huge and unexpected contrast… I defy you not to smile! From then on, an absorbing and intriguing virtuoso development and flight of imagination by Dohnányi takes the tune into all manner of allegro or waltz-like manifestations, which recall the styles of other composers. Listen especially to the third variation – marked L’istesso tempo – and you will hear a theme which brings to mind Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, a charming, beautiful and memorable part. Recorded at the Henry Wood Hall in the July of last year (Recording Producer, Siva Oke, and Engineer, Tony Wass), Somm deserves absolutely full marks for an inspired production.
The Cornish-born composer and former Royal Academy of Music student, Judith Bailey (b. 1941), is undoubtedly one of contemporary music’s lesser-known voices. But I believe that this might well change, as a result of a brand-new CD from EM Records, the recording arm of the English Music Festival. Entitled ‘Havas’ (a native old-Cornish term for a period of summer), the disc allows us to sample a number of landscape scenes, with powerful, historical and mystical associations – Lanyon Quoit (a Neolithic site), The Merry Maidens (a stone circle in the Cornish countryside), and an area of coastal water – Gwavas – said to have healing powers. The orchestral writing is compelling and attractive – and something of the spirit of Bax’s Tintagel finds its way into the score, although I was also reminded of the music of William Alwyn and of his composer-wife, Doreen Carwithen. Judith Bailey’s 17-minute-long Concerto for Orchestra also appears, alongside a sequence of four works by George Lloyd (1913-98) – a fellow Cornish composer, who has long been viewed as a standard-bearer (or a symbol) of the neglected post-war romantic tradition; that time when Stockhausen and the Second Viennese School almost completely eclipsed all those who tried to maintain tonality and British romanticism.
The orchestra used for the recording is the very fine Bath Philharmonia (an ensemble quite new to me) who play in firm, full-bloom, professional style, in Lloyd’s Prelude to Act 1 of The Serf, In Memoriam, Le Pont du Gard (a symphonic impression of the ancient French aqueduct), and the nostalgic, HMS Trinidad March (a tribute to the composer’s old shipmates from World War ll – a work that certainly evokes a sense of past endeavours and the recalling of those times by old comrades). Jason Thornton, who has led the orchestra at many venues throughout the West and South-West of England, conducts the performance.
Finally, Chandos scales the heights of the English choral and organ-music tradition, with twelve works by Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) – organist and choirmaster of Worcester Cathedral, whose life there, and world of music, faced destruction when Cromwell’s forces occupied the city during the Civil War, and (as Jeremy Summerly’s booklet note observes) “ripped the organ out of the cathedral”. A convinced Royalist, Tomkins clearly saw a connection between the kingdom of God, and the kingdom to which he gave his emotional and political allegiance. A Jubilate (for ten-part choir with organ), a Te Deum (for the same forces) and Magnificat (five-part choir) demonstrate the exceptional vocal training and tradition of the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge (Director of Music, Andrew Nethsingha). The anthem, When David heard that Absalom was Slain, conveys a profound sense of mourning, as does the introspective organ piece, A Sad Pavan for These Distracted Times – a lonely lament for the imperilled kingdom, dismantled state and demise of a King. The Editor will forgive me, and I hope, indulge me – if I tell readers that this edition of Endnotes was written on the day of the Scottish referendum.