This disc is something of a musical potpourri and contains three works from the Lyrita archives as well as three that are recorded here for the first time. The substantial symphonic poem, "Macbeth" (1859) with its Berliozian splashes of orchestral color by Henry Hugo Pierson was unknown to me when I first got this disc, as was the "Contrasts" of David Morgan.
The reputation of Harrow and Cambridge-educated Henry Hugo Pierson (born Henry Hugh Pearson) rests chiefly on a large number of songs with piano accompaniment, though his output also includes works on a more substantial scale, including three unpublished operas, an oratorio, "Jerusalem", performed at the 1852 Norwich Festival, and incidental music to the second part of "Faust" (1854). Pierson studied music in Leipzig and spent most of his adult life in Germany, even changing his name to sound more teutonic. Yet he frequently found inspiration in English poetry and drama, especially Shakespeare, as in his "Hamlet, marche funèbre for piano", and three late orchestral works, the concert overtures "As You Like It", "Romeo and Juliet" and the more substantial symphonic poem "Macbeth".
Pierson showered the score of Macbeth with copious quotations and stage directions in German, though the listener need have no prior knowledge of this detailed programme to appreciate the symphonic poem's dramatic inspiration. A grave and ominous slow unison theme, dripping with portent, headed 'Hours dreadful and things strange' introduces the three witches. A lively Scottish-style march, graced with snap rhythms, accompanies Macbeth and his soldiers onto the blasted heath. Timorous tremolo strings herald the three witches 'All hail!' predictions, each characterized in turn (on trombone, clarinet and cornet, respectively); the First Witch's prediction assumes great importance throughout the rest of the piece as a doom-laden motto-theme. Another significant recurring motif derives from the start of a gentle and appealing melody, appearing initially on clarinet, depicting Lady Macbeth: an incongruous piece of musical casting. Brisk fluctuations in tone and color reflect the abundant superscriptions in the score of celebrated quotations: 'If it were done when 'tis done...' appears over skulking strings, whilst 'Is this a dagger...' launches an extended passage dominated by staccato triplets. A substantial, eccentric Witches Dance enlivens the work's central section with its quirky changes of rhythm and melodic twists and turns. The final pages are packed with incident, including a rakish march for the English army, the death of Lady Macbeth and a swift but fierce battle (con brio, tutta forza). The quiet, resigned ending incorporates brief references to work's opening theme and the First Witch’s 'All hail!'
Alan Rawsthorne's "Fantasy Overture. Cortèges" was written between October and December 1974, and is dedicated to the memory of Shostakovich. It was first performed on January 2nd, 1975 by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Vernon Handley at a workshop of twentieth century music at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. Morgan has described Contrasts as a "deliberate study in duality: it consists of two disparate movements, each based on the same two themes, constantly varied throughout the piece".
"Cortèges" was commissioned by the BBC and premiered by the London Symphony Orchestra under Basil Cameron at the 1945 Proms. The title alludes to 'processions', and we are presented with two distinct, but thematically connected examples. An imposing introductory passage hints at the main subjects of both processions, the first of which is a noble adagio, whose solemn tread and major/minor ambiguities evoke the opening funeral march from Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony. The strings's melancholy lament, answered by keening woodwind, is haunting and poignant, subtly combining the epic with the intimate as William Walton did in the funeral march from his incidental music (1947) for Laurence Olivier’s film of Hamlet. By contrast, the second procession is a brilliant fugal rondo in the form of a whirling tarantella of elfin grace and agility. In the midst of this dazzling contrapuntal parade, Rawsthorne launches a new theme, which he described in his own program notes as containing "certain temporary and ephemeral military characteristics". After a climactic contrapuntal tour de force in which both processional themes are presented together (an electrifying, reconciliatory moment), the ending is wistful rather than celebratory: the parade has passed by, leaving only fragmentary memories. Teeming with invention, Cortèges is one of Rawsthorne's most accomplished scores, no less appealing than the composer’s popular Overture "Street Corner" (1944), though more ambitious and wide ranging.
In 1961, at the age of twenty-eight, David Morgan entered the Royal Academy of Music, studying composition with Alan Bush and orchestration with Leighton Lucas. During his time there, he wrote a number of chamber and instrumental works for different instrumental groups, such as "Trio for Seven" (1962) for Woodwind and String Quartet and the "Divertimento for Brass" (1964), and, in March 1965, he became the first composer honored by a concert given at the RAM devoted entirely to pieces written while still a student. Upon leaving the Academy, he went to study in Prague on a British Council Scholarship. His most significant work from this period is a Violin Concerto (1966), premiered to great success at the Dvorak Hall, Prague in 1967. (I have never heard the Violin Concerto before but apparently it is on an all-Morgan LP that Lyrita released during the late 1970s. *Does anyone out there have it??) The compelling, emotionally charged "Sinfonia da Requiem", described by Morgan as "a personal, not a political reaction to the events of August 1968", was completed in 1972.
The first movement of "Contrasts", Lento e solenne, is sombre and sepulchral, with a waspish, occasionally brutal scherzo at its heart. It opens with a hushed and mysterious introduction flecked by harp and glockenspiel, with soft bell-like chords. Appearing initially as a sustained melody on flute, the first theme features the Shostakovich musical monogram D-S-C-H (or D-E flat-C-B natural). Also quietly expressive, the second theme is first heard on the horn. An increase in intensity leads to a powerful climax, which recedes to a desolate, hushed repetition of the D- S-C-H motif. The central scherzo is in rondo form; its ritornello includes aleatoric techniques previously used by Morgan in his "Sinfonia da Requiem". The scherzo's first episode highlights woodwind, including flutter-tongued flutes and pizzicato strings, whilst the second contains an expressive clarinet solo. A vigorous climax leads to a varied reappearance of the atmospheric opening material.
The Allegro energico second movement is an upbeat toccata, antithetical to the first movement in its mood of buoyant optimism. Material from the previous Lento appears, but in a much swifter tempo. Unfolding in sonata form, the movement takes in a passage in carnival-style dance-time and a slower, archaic-sounding episode with the air of a Respighi tone poem, marked 'Amabile', on muted upper strings and woodwind. The development exploits the second half of the exposition, setting up a vigorous pizzicato ostinato punctuated by harp chords. The flamboyantly rowdy conclusion of this study in duality ends in an emphatically unambiguous triple forte tutti. The two movements retain their very different characters, despite shared material: the percussion in the first movement is predominantly deep and sonorous, including tam-tam, bass drum, slung cymbal and tubular bells, whilst the brilliance of the second movement is aided by the use of tambourine, maracas, triangle and glockenspiel, even including a brief solo for the latter instrument. "Contrasts" is part compact two-movement symphony and part vividly scored concerto for orchestra. It juxtaposes two distinct sides of the composer's creative personality: some of the Sinfonia da Requiem's aggressive bitterness sours the first movement's central scherzo, while the second movement shares a breezy exuberance with Morgan's tuneful and energetic Overture: "Spring Carnival", dedicated to his wife on their wedding.
Warlock's "Serenade for Strings" is imo easily the most beautiful work on this disc.
Though the "Capriol Suite" from 1926 is Peter Warlock’s most celebrated work for string orchestra, his earlier Serenade is a work of subtle, elusive distinction. It was written between 1921 and 1922 and published in 1923, dedicated "to Frederick Delius on his sixtieth birthday". Warlock audibly pays tribute to his dedicatee with rich Delian harmonies achieved through frequent divisi writing and lavish double-stopping. Yet when the texture becomes spare and fragile, Warlock's gently melancholic voice is revealed. The main themes, dominated by their 12/8 rhythms and an all-pervasive rocking figure first heard in the opening bar, flow like a limpid English stream and are developed with considerable contrapuntal virtuosity. A climax of Delian intensity is followed by a varied recapitulation of all the thematic material. This is my favorite version, almost matched by an all Warlock Arte Nova disc from many years back.
Arnold's "Comedy Overture. Beckus the Dandipratt" of 1943 signalled the start of Malcolm Arnold's maturity as a composer: a London Philharmonic Orchestra performance under Edward van Beinum in November, 1947 and a subsequent recording by the same artists marked Arnold's arrival as a fresh new voice in post-war British music. Though entitled a "Comedy Overture", Beckus displays far more psychological substance than this label would suggest. The "dandipratt", an archaic name for "street urchin" is represented by two blithely droll themes, first heard on cornet and flute, respectively. These themes are ripe for development and suffer from a variety of distortions and transformations, as Beckus becomes the subject of a series of misadventures. Some episodes are playful, others more menacing, but in the end the dandipratt emerges from his ordeals unreformed and apparently unscathed, preserved by his own inconsequence. Vividly scored and deftly constructed, Beckus is the work of a natural symphonist. Though written for large orchestra and incorporating characteristically full-blooded tuttis, much of the scoring has a chamber-like delicacy, anticipating the austere textures of Arnold's haunting Ninth Symphony (1986): the roots of his impressive symphonic legacy are planted in Beckus as firmly as those of Andrjez Panufnik in the Polish master's Tragic Overture of 1940.
Francis Chagrin "Concert Overture, Helter Skelter"
In addition to his concert music, including two symphonies and a piano concerto, Francis Chagrin was also a prolific composer for films such as "The Colditz Story" (1954), "An Inspector Calls" (1954), "Danger Within" (1959) and "Greyfriars Bobby" (1961), and television, including the incidental music for the Doctor Who story "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" (1964). The Overture Helter Skelter, first published in 1951, is based on themes from the 1949 film of the same name, a would-be screwball romantic comedy involving a tall story of an heiress whose attack of hiccups is cured after various adventures at the BBC's Broadcasting House.
The overture starts with a brief four-bar crescendo introducing the swaggering, energetic Allegretto scherzando opening tune, whose hiccupping rhythm has an openly slapstick quality in stark contrast with the richly lyrical dolce string melody in thirds, reminiscent of Richard Strauss at his most calorific, that follows. The tempo changes to Allegro for a quirky staccato theme, laced with grace notes. Successive attempts by the soulful, Straussian melody to delay the return of the original waggish theme are eventually foiled and the broadly comic material returns, revelling in its raucous trombone glissandi and mocking 'wa wa' effects. The lively ending encapsulates the overture's insouciant braggadocio.