Endnotes, October 2023

Paul Nash; Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase; Walker Art Gallery; credit Wikipedia

Endnotes, October 2023; in this edition, premiere recordings of British piano concertos from the Lyrita label, reviewed by Stuart Millson

Aside from the thoughtfully-chosen, sometimes recondite musical material, Lyrita enhances the latter with evocative artwork, lengthy and detailed sleeve notes, containing insightful biographies of the conductors and soloists who have created the Lyrita sound. For this new CD of recordings of British piano concertos, the booklet cover is Cumulus Head, a 1944 painting by Paul Nash, evoking an English downland landscape.

Herewith three piano concertos, by composers John Addison, Gordon Jacob, and Edmund Rubra respectively. Addison’s Variations for Piano and Orchestra of 1948 is an at times quirky, at times impassioned score, designed to test any soloist and draw in an inquisitive audience. In short, a superior ‘divertissement’. Addison was best known for his film music, such as his scores for Reach for the Sky (1956) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. But he was also an accomplished composer of classical music, as his Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, and Orchestra (1948) attests.

Gordon Jacob’s Piano Concerto (1957) has a similar style to that of Vaughan Williams. The work begins with an emphatic allegro passage. But in contrast to ‘RVW’s Piano Concerto in C, premiered in February 1933 and conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, Jacob’s concerto does not conclude in peace and seclusion. Now a largely forgotten figure, Jacob was a great teacher and a prolific composer. The concerto is informed by distinct elements of nostalgia. Under the baton of Stephen Bell, the National Orchestra of Wales do justice to Jacob’s bold argument and big sound.

Of the three composers featured in this CD, Edmund Rubra, a devout Roman Catholic, is unquestionably the more mystical and introspective. He composed a large cycle of symphonies. Those familiar with Vernon Handley’s recording for Lyrita of Rubra’s Festival Overture will understand why connoisseurs of British music maintain that Rubra’s oeuvre should be given a more prominent place in our concert and Radio 3 schedules. George Vass, a champion of contemporary British repertoire, exercises admirable control over Rubbra’s concerto, notably in the intensely spiritual opening on woodwind, followed by a violin solo. And credit to pianist Simon Callaghan, whose performances at the English Music Festival have made such a profound impression.

CD details; British Piano Concertos, Addison/Jacob/Rubbra. BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductors Stephen Bell and George Vass. Lyrita SRCD.416

 Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of QR

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Coming this October, a new performing edition of J.S. Bach, the Well Tempered Clavier by Vladimir Feltsman. The release will consist of two books each containing 24 Preludes and Fugues, alongside the release of all 48 separate scores. The scores are unaltered and are the edition published in 1886 by the Bach-Gesellschaft. However performing suggestions have been “added in light grey and are based around Baroque performing traditions, modern practices, and the editor’s experience of studying, performing, recording and teaching” (Vladimir Feltsman).

To accompany the release of the scores there will be a number of videos of each Prelude and Fugue available to help aid in the learning of the music. 41 of these are performance videos, 6 are a mix of videos and scrolling scores and one has just a scrolling score to follow.

Book 1 and 2 will be available to purchase from £19.99 and the individual scores from £2.99

For those interested in a film of Vladimir Feltsman performing J.S. Bach The Well-Clavier, you can find this available on the Nimbus records website for £19.99.

 

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Monteverdi 1610 Vespers

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, credit Wikipedia

Monteverdi 1610 Vespers, I Fagiolini, plus English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, directed/conducted by Robert Hollingworth, Kings Place, Sound Unwrapped, Friday 29th September 2023, reviewed by Leslie Jones

In 1610, Claudio Monteverdi, maestro cappella at the court of Duke Gonzaga in Mantua, felt underpaid and was looking for new employment. At an audience in Rome with Pope Paul V, he presented a manuscript dedicated to the latter, containing a disparate collection of texts, both sacred and profane, including the main elements of what we now call the Vespers of 1610. This MS must constitute the most extensive self-advertisement in music history (see ‘Vespers (1610) – Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)’, by Barry Creasy, Chairman, Collegium Musicum London).

In his informative programme notes, Robert Hollingworth, the founder and director of I Fagiolini, contends that ‘a big resonant space’ such as St Mark’s Venice, ‘inevitably smudges most of the detail for most of the congregation/audience’. The ‘clear’ acoustics of King’s Place, in contrast, provide, in his judgement, an opportunity to ‘untangle and clarify a little more of Monteverdi’s sumptuous detail…’ But some commentators, including this one, prefer what Hollingworth calls ‘the great wash of sound that is sonically glorious’. It was noticeable that when the performers moved up to the balcony, the sound became immediately richer. As Fatima Dabbah observes, when the Vespers are performed in a stone church as opposed to an ordinary concert hall, the ‘reverberation’ in the latter is ‘indescribable’ (‘All important acoustics, 9 things to know about Monteverdi’s Vespers, wfmt, October 14th, 2022). 

Observing I Fagiolini from close up reveals just how much their singing depends on unspoken communication within the ensemble. On this occasion, they were clearly enjoying themselves (at times, seemingly sharing a private joke) notwithstanding the immense mental and physical demands being made upon them. Indefatigable tenor Nicholas Mulroy evidently played a key role in tying things together.

Music, according to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘stands alone’ as its effect is ‘more powerful and penetrating…than the other arts’. Metaphysics aside, we concur.

Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of Quarterly Review

 

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Tales of Ancient Kings

 

Caracalla & Geta, Bearfight in the Colosseum, L Alma-Tadema, credit Wikipedia

Tales of Ancient Kings

Historia Augusta trans. by David Magie; revised by David Rohrbacher. 3 vols. Harvard University Press, 2022. $30.00. Vol. I: pp. i-liii, 1-471; Vol. II: pp.1-463; Vol. III: 1-562, reviewed by Darrell Sutton

Wading through the mound of scholarly matter on ancient Latin texts is a daunting task. Numerous opinions need to be considered. Historia Augusta (HA), so-called presently because communis opinio presumes it to be a work authored by only one writer, was handed down to modern readers in manuscripts dating from the Caroline revival to the Renaissance era. For a long time none of the texts were accurately reported. Within the MSS, notations and emendations by various hands are noticeable; but identifying the emendators is harder still. The HA remains crucial to studies of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.

From the inception of research on HA, it was thought that the MSS contained the lettering of six writers who composed biographies of various rulers;
I: Aelius Spartianus (Hadrian, Aelius, Didius Iulianus, Septimius Severus, Pescennius Niger, Caracalla, Geta); II: Iulius Capitolinus (Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Verus, Pertinax, Clodius Albinus, Opilius Macrinus, Maximini duo, the Gordiani, Maximus et Balbinus; III: Vulcacius Gallicanus (Avidius Cassius); IV: Aelius Lampridius (Commodus, Diadumenus, Heliogabalus, Alexander Severus), V: Trebellius Pollio (Valerianus, Gallienus, Thirty Tyrants, Claudius Gothicus); and VI: Flavius Vopiscus Syracusanus (Aurelianus, Tacitus, Probus, Four Tyrants, Carus, Carinus and Numerian).

The period covered ranges from AD117-284. Each memoir purportedly was written during the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine I. Numerous documents and items of public record and recollection are used to support the profiles. Disagreement abounds. All the sketches do not exhibit the same literary qualities. Therefore debates on HA’s authorship teem with all sorts of claims. Scientific discussion of the texts originate in 1889 with Hermann Dessau’s paper, Über Zeit und Persönlichkeït der Scriptores historiae Augustae (Hermes Vol. 24, No.3). Dessau (1856-1931) was a pupil of Mommsen and an able text critic. His prosopographic research informed his theories regarding the HA. He rejected nearly all of what was commonly believed about it, eschewing popular beliefs of the day.  Continue reading

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Das Rheingold

Gustave Doré, Death on the Pale Horse, credit Wikipedia

Das Rheingold

Music drama in four scenes, music and libretto by Richard Wagner, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano, directed by Barrie Kosky, Royal Opera, 20th September 2023, reviewed by Leslie Jones

Indicatively, Wagner called Das Rheingold a music drama, as he despised the audience interruptions, primacy of arias and puerile plots of conventional opera. His ambition was to emulate the Ancient Greeks no less, by uniting all art forms into a Gesamtkuntswerk (‘total art work’). Indeed, according to the programme of the forthcoming ‘Congress of the International Verband Richard Wagner’, he single-handedly ended ‘the predominance of the singers and the voice’.

As Cosima Wagner recorded in her Diary, ‘I have composed a Greek chorus’, R exclaims to me in the morning, ‘but a chorus which will be sung, so to speak, by the orchestra’ (quoted by Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, in ‘The Intermingling of the Human and the Divine’, Official Programme). Acting, however, has invariably been the weakest link in this chain. The cast of Barrie Kosky’s new production of Rheingold struggled to convey emotions and ideas via body language. And as critic Philip Hensher observed, the gods’ polo attire detracted from the work’s mythic elements (Front Row, Radio 4, 14th September).

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Bigamy

Bigamy, film of 1927, credit Wikipedia

Bigamy
by Bill Hartley

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the Matrimonial Causes Act, the first Act to establish equal rights in divorce for men and women. In contrast, the first Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 allowed a man to obtain a divorce by proving adultery. A woman had to prove aggravating circumstances such as cruelty or, significantly, bigamy. For some people the best way to escape a bad marriage was to disappear and start again.

The annual ‘Calendars’ (records of trials) in Liverpool, Chester and North Wales for 1923 show that the authorities prosecuted offences of a varied nature. For example, in January of that year Thomas Moore appeared in court in Liverpool charged with stealing some hen’s eggs and was sentenced to six strokes of the birch. Other cases involved theft of a nose bag (presumably belonging to a horse) and the theft of a dog collar. The Calendars also provide a rich source for trades long extinct, such as loomer and rope splicer. One accused hailing from an inner city address in Liverpool, was described as a ‘cow keeper’. Presumably he was involved in that long vanished enterprise, the urban dairy. Sounding like someone out of a novel by Sax Rohmer, Kok Lunn a ship’s cook with a previous conviction for ‘possession of a prepared opium pipe’, was fined £10 for keeping a house for the purposes of betting. Dang Con an assistant shopkeeper was prosecuted for being the occupier of premises ‘allowing same to be used for opium smoking’. He was fined £5 at the Liverpool Quarter Sessions.

Amongst this catalogue of crimes ranging from the mundane to the peculiar, bigamy occurred quite regularly. Although the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act was and remains the means for prosecuting acts of violence, bigamy was also included and designated as a ‘class one’ offence punishable by up to seven years in prison. Prosecutions for bigamy peaked during the First World War and after that went into a gradual decline. Cases attracted press attention and sometimes moral outrage. An article covering a case of bigamy in a 1910 edition of the Nottingham Evening Post was alarmingly headlined, ‘The Crime That Must Be Stopped’, though no advice was offered as to how this might be achieved.  Despite changes in the law, divorce was still difficult and expensive to obtain with both parties needing to be in agreement. For the poorer classes, it was often easier to simply disappear and make a fresh start elsewhere. Illegal remarriage was a way of regaining respectability. For vicars and registrars it was impossible to check that the information people gave on official documents was correct, because each district kept its own separate register of births, marriages and deaths.

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Endnotes, September 2023

Endnotes, September 2023

Jean Sibelius by Favén (1925), credit Wikimedia Commons

In this edition: Walton in Mediterranean mood; Sibelius in Nordic splendour. Plus, Bach sonatas and a Russian romantic masterpiece. Reviewed by Stuart Millson

On August 3rd, The Quarterly Review was at the Royal Albert Hall for a Proms concert of Walton and Sibelius, given by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under its Finnish conductor, John Storgards. The works of the maestro’s great countryman, Jean Sibelius, have greatly enriched the Chandos CD catalogue in recent years, with the Storgards/BBC PO cycle of symphonies garnering much critical approval. And a special sound from this partnership has also emerged, transferring to an equally memorable Carl Nielsen cycle: a velvety sound, with prominent, sometimes rugged brass, and superb attention to tiny detail ~ particularly woodwind writing.

The audience could hear ‘in the flesh’ that brilliant recording-studio/broadcast-orchestra sound ~ the Albert Hall stage and acoustic, doubling that intensity. Storgards carefully shaped a ‘spotlight sound’, meaning that each wind instrument, each pluck of a harp-string, gained prominence and attention. About five minutes into the Sibelius Symphony No. 1, after the immense initial symphonic argument and establishment of a theme, a contrasting delicate ‘dance’ appears, involving flutes, woodwind and harp; a fleeting, sparkling moment, before an angry section on timpani breaks the idyll.

A pizzicato passage then takes root, building up with glimpses of strange forest light ~ cellos and basses thrumming, as flute and clarinet phrases tumble and whirl. Critics often remark on the Tchaikovsky-like quality of Sibelius’s two early symphonies ~ big tunes, Russian-sounding romanticism ~ and yet, appearing out of the mists, comes the pure, Nordic Sibelius who would go on to give the world masterpieces such as the Fifth and Sixth symphonies and En Saga.

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Endnotes, August 2023

Gustav Doré, illustration for Idylls of the King, credit Wikipedia

Endnotes, August 2023

In this edition: English music for strings at JAM on the Marsh Festival; songs by Eric McElroy; reviewed by Stuart Millson, the Classical Music Editor of Quarterly Review

Still preserving a sense of rural remoteness, Romney Marsh in Kent is one of the country’s most unusual localities. Once a watery world of creeks and salt marsh, then drained and given over to crops and sheep-grazing, the green low-levels extend as far as Dungeness and Denge Marsh, a unique shingle promontory jutting into the English Channel ~ and designated as our nation’s only official desert. The scene is partly dominated by the atomic power station, which is linked to its sister-facility in the North-West of England, by way of a single-track railway line (spared by Beeching) that threads its way through the hamlets of the Marsh. The tower of Lydd Church provides a contrast to the austere atomic monolith on the Ness; and rising above the landscape just to the east is the equally impressive Church of St. Nicholas, New Romney ~ the venue for a London Mozart Players concert of English (and American) music for strings, held as part of the JAM on the Marsh Festival.

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How the West was Wrung

 

No Country for Old Men, credit Wikipedia

                   How the West was Wrung

Last month, the death was announced of the American writer Cormac McCarthy. Newspaper obituaries described him as a reclusive man who gave few interviews and let his books do the talking. For many years, success eluded him with none of his first five novels selling more than 3000 copies and as a consequence he lived a penurious life. McCarthy finally reached a wider audience when his 2005 novel No Country For Old Men was turned into a multiple Academy Award winning film. The book has been described as a modern Western and the American South West was a location which McCarthy used in other works. Indeed, he travelled extensively in the region whilst undertaking research, eventually settling in El Paso, Texas.

McCarthy remarked that apart from Coca Cola, the only other thing universally known about the United States was ‘Cowboys and Indians’. He added that nobody had taken the genre seriously for 200 years and had decided that he should.

Though a modern Western, No Country contained some archetypal characters such as the drifter, the bounty hunter, the kid, and the sheriff with a weary and reluctant sense of duty; a man gradually being overwhelmed by the savagery of people. Savagery and violence certainly weren’t confined to this book. McCarthy’s first foray into the Western genre was Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West, published in 1985. Although it didn’t attract much attention at the time, the book is now hailed as a masterpiece and for some merits the title of ‘Great American Novel’ but like his earlier works it sold poorly.

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Love’s Vicissitudes

Duel of Pushkin and George d’Anthès (1869), by Adrian Volvo, credit Wikipedia

Love’s Vicissitudes 

L’elisir d’amore at Longborough Festival Opera, Tuesday 27th June, 2023, The Queen of Spades at The Grange Festival, Thursday 29th June, 2023, reviewed by David Truslove

Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades may have little in common, but both these new productions drew inspiration from their immediate surroundings. A typical Cotswold village was lovingly created for Longborough Festival Opera’s Donizetti, while an orangery, echoing past affluence in leafy Hampshire, provided the setting for The Grange Festival’s Tchaikovsky.

At Longborough, its picture book charm well suited to country house diversion, it was summer season fun with director Max Hoehn declining to take the plot’s love-conquers-all theme seriously. Jemima Robinson’s designs updated Donizetti’s 1832 rom.com to contemporary rural Britain; stone walls, phone booth-turned-defibrillator, post box and park bench framed by a jigsaw puzzle of birdlife with a topical slogan declaring ‘Green, pleasant and now protected’. When the stage was not already crowded, it was then peopled by a postie (Nemorino) and a chorus of villagers; policeman, builders with hard hats, a Goth, two pensioners and a schoolgirl (Giannetta) on a scooter.

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Em notes, July 2023

English Music Festival founder, Em Marshall-Luck

Em notes, July 2023

In this edition: new works at the Sixteenth English Music Festival and a CD tribute to Walter Leigh. Reviewed by Stuart Millson.

Approaching Dorchester-on-Thames from Henley takes the traveller through the England of Three Men in a Boat and The Wind in the Willows – via roadsides garlanded with early-summer cow parsley and, in the distance, the remnant rings of Anglo-Saxon earthworks. Close to Dorchester is the famous landscape feature Wittenham Clumps, a tree-crested hill, a symbol of pastoral continuity and the venue for this year’s English Music Festival.

Arriving at the great church in fine weather, QR enjoyed a preview of the opening-night concert: the BBC Concert Orchestra and their conductor, Martin Yates – with Raphael Wallfisch, soloist – hard at work in rehearsal for E.J. Moeran’s Cello Concerto. Written at the end of the Second World War for his wife, the cellist, Peers Coetmore, the concerto is a soulful piece – especially in the sad beauty of the slow movement – conjuring in the mind’s eye the lonely west coast of Ireland; although, it seems, there was no specific spirit-of-place intended by this gifted but troubled composer. Experiences in the First World War and a lifelong battle with alcohol had evidently taken their toll. Continue reading

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