Rare British chamber works, Vivaldi arranged by Bach, and a trip to Lochnagar
If there is one musical initiative in this country that has revealed a hitherto unseen, unknown and unappreciated dimension to our cultural understanding, it has to be the English Music Festival, held each year at Dorchester in Oxfordshire. The name, Norman O’Neill, is virtually forgotten today, and even for aficionados, he is little more than a footnote in specialist appreciations of English music, such as Michael Trend’s indispensable survey of our artistic renascence at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. In the pages of Trend’s book, The Music Makers, O’Neill is simply mentioned as a member of the “Frankfurt Gang”, a group of English composers, which included Percy Grainger and Cyril Scott, who studied in Germany in the 1890s. But he enjoyed a fruitful later career as Musical Director of the Haymarket Theatre, composing dozens of scores of incidental music, and as a leading light of The Royal Philharmonic Society in which he served as Treasurer. O’Neill also championed the music of Delius, and it is quite possible that he could also have become a significant name in film music, his work attracting the attention of Alfred Hitchcock. But this sensitive, unassuming administrator and composer lost his life following a street accident in 1934 (the same year as both Delius and Elgar) – a great loss for our cultural life.
In 2011, O’Neill’s Piano Quintet in E minor (1904) was programmed at a Sunday morning concert at Dorchester Abbey, the work appearing alongside Elgar’s sublime and much better-known quintet for the same combination of instruments. On that memorable occasion, pianist Michael Dussek and the Bridge String Quartet gave the audience a truly beautiful performance of both works; the four-movement O’Neill piece complementing the Elgar entirely, and showing, once again, the wealth of intricate inventiveness, sunlit melody and English melancholia to be found in the writing of musicians other than the pre-eminent Elgar.
Michael Dussek and the Bridge Quartet have now committed their interpretation of the O’Neill to disc; a crystal-clear recording by EM Records, made in the fine acoustic of Wyastone Leys, Monmouthshire (the old recording home of the Nimbus label). The recording arm of the English Music Festival, the technical team of Richard Bland (Engineer) and Producer, Matthew Dilley, and Executive Producer, Em Marshall-Luck, have ensured not just the survival of Norman O’Neill’s output, but have given a spur to a wider and much-needed rediscovery of this neglected figure. The CD also features the String Quartet in C Major, the Piano Trio (written in 1909) and the Theme and Variations for Piano Trio (1895). All the performances here are world premiere recordings.
Chandos Records, too, has been as industrious as ever, issuing (in its Chaconne series of baroque and early music) a most enjoyable collection of eight concerti by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and the brothers Alessandro and Benedetto Marcello, his contemporaries – but in arrangements for solo harpsichord, made by J.S. Bach. It is said that Bach may have simply enjoyed the act of transcribing music for its own sake, or that he derived educational and intellectual stimulation from such work. Whatever the reason, the range of music on this new disc, performed by Sophie Yates (an expert in early English keyboard music, and a national and international performer) is refreshing and interesting; a world of movements and sequences that dance along, or which slowly reside into a thoughtful languor, suggesting an imaginary (or actual!) walk through a Venetian square or church, or a stately hall of some kind. The recording venue was St. George’s Church, Brandon Hill in Bristol, a notable venue for chamber music, and a place long associated with BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concerts. Great care is now invested in the execution of baroque music, and followers of the authentic instrument movement may enjoy the following note from the CD booklet:
Double manual harpsichord by Andrew Garlick, Buckland St. Mary (Somerset) 1996, copy of Jean-Claude Goujon, Paris 1748, in the collection of the Musee de la Musique of the Conservatoire of Paris. Harpsichord tuned by Andrew Garlick. Temperament: Vallotti. Pitch: A = 415 Hz.
Recording producer, Gary Cole, deserves to be mentioned (with Rachel Smith, supervising all matters relating to Mastering).
Finally from Chandos, we move very much into the 21st century, with vivid music for the modern age from composer, Nigel Hess (b. 1953). Hess is a wonderfully versatile musician, writing for the wider audiences of television and films (Ladies in Lavender), and in specially-commissioned works for the Royal Family – a Piano Concerto in honour of the Queen Mother; for bands and orchestras of all kinds, and on this CD, the Central Band of the Royal Air Force.
Looming into view (the first item on the collection) is the Millennium Bridge (movement no. 1 in the 2003 suite, New London Pictures). Eric Coates, of course, was the great “London” composer, his Knightsbridge and London Bridge marches taking us back to a capital city of inter-war elegance and romance. But Nigel Hess now steps forward in that Coates spirit and tradition, for an updated tapestry of London life. The second and third movements of the work are London Eye and Congestion Charge, respectively; and in the latter – a possible signature tune for a modern “Carry-On London!” – you wish that you had opted for public transport. But in The Lochnagar Suite, we are very much in the fresh air and freedom of the Highlands – Scottish dances, circling eagles, and great, craggy landscapes, in which the old man revisits his memories and youth.
Commissioned by the Coldstream Guards eleven years ago, Monck’s March (the eighth work on the record) brings out Nigel Hess at his picture-painting best – the 7,000 men under General Monck’s command, marching to London from the wintry North; Northumbrian bagpipes, folk-tune laments from the Borders, swashbuckling brass, and catchy, thwacking martial drums set the scene, with the long road south ending at the gates of the City, and a burst of oranges and lemons to show that we have truly arrived.
An out-of-the-blue discovery. An excellent cocktail of bandsmanship and bravura, in the spirit of good-quality lighter listening.
STUART MILLSON is the QR’s Music Editor
Norman O’Neill, Chamber works for strings and piano. Bridge Quartet/Michael Dussek, piano. EMR CD005
J. S. Bach, The Transcriptions of Concertos by Vivaldi. Sophie Yates, harpsichord. CHAN 0799
Nigel Hess, Works for Symphonic Wind Orchestra, including New London Pictures, The Lochnagar Suite, and Monck’s March. The Central Band of The Royal Air Force, conducted by the composer. CHAN 10767