Sunday, August 30, 2015

John Musto - Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 - Two Concert Rags - Odense Symphony Orchestra, Scott Yoo Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra, Glen Cortese - John Musto, Piano - Bridge Records 2013

Time for another unheard/unopened disc from the piles, freshly imported for your delight and mine.
I read a couple of rather positive reviews in Gramophone last year and I decided to buy it, never hearing John Musto's music (or name) prior to the reviews. Below is one of those reviews, so let us go forth and give a listen!

"John Musto’s two piano concertos are works of enormous imagination, freshness and feeling that require a soloist who combines sensitivity with almost ferocious virtuosity. As this new disc reveals, the composer had the ideal pianist in mind when writing the concertos – himself. The two pieces are different in numerous ways, though they share Musto’s acute ear for a range of styles, including ragtime and jazz. The Piano Concerto No 1, whose gestation unfolded from 1998 to 2005, was initially inspired by Musto’s friends who died from HIV/Aids. Its dramatic personality is established in the opening movement, with dark ruminations between orchestra and piano. Hints of ragtime dot the landscape of the second movement, while the finale is a burst of perpetual motion rubbing shoulders with remembrances from the opener.

The Piano Concerto No 2 (2006) finds Musto in upbeat frame of mind, eager to sail across the keyboard in dazzling fashion or tease with bluesy sweetness. It’s an entrancing score, full of vibrant interplay. Musto writes audaciously not only for the piano. He also takes pleasure in exploring orchestral colours and possibilities. The last movement is a tour de force of cheeky and alluring moods, with the piano as the galvanic centre of attention.

As soloist, Musto makes a rich meal of his concertos, collaborating with fine forces in Denmark and the US – the Odense Symphony Orchestra, under Scott Yoo, in the First; the Greeley (Colorado) Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Glen Cortese, in the Second. Between concertos, Musto plays two of his Five Concert Rags to irresistible effect." – Donald Rosenberg, Gramophone, Jan. 2014

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Balanescu Quartet: "Possessed" - Music of Kraftwerk, David Byrne and Alexander Balanescu - The Balanescu Quartet - Mute Records 1992

This is, truly, one of my absolute favorite String Quartet recordings. I am not speaking of "favorite" String Quartets (Bartok, Shosti, and so on) however, but rather exciting music written for and here more importantly-played by a String Quartet. And a fine Quartet the Balanescu is! In many ways The Balanescu Quartet approaches music the way the Kronos always have. The moment the disc opens with "Robots" one can hear that something special is about to unfold, and it continues, "Model" has never sounded so beautiful-all of these transcriptions just work so remarkably well-and they make me feel a bit more alive. Truly I urge everyone to listen to this one.

During the 1990s, one year on a summer's day, I 'got lucky' (musically speaking of course) when my then girlfriend's friend happened to have a copy of "Possessed" with her in the car. We didn't listen to it, but rather my girlfriend exclaimed "oh you must let him borrow the disc! he hasn't heard the Balanescu Quartet before" as we were exiting the car. I was intrigued & excited from the moment I looked at the disc; the first five works to my surprise were transcriptions for string quartet of a few of Kraftwerk's best known pieces. Kraftwerk/"Kraftwelt" the seminal electronic ensemble, was formed in Düsseldorf in 1970 by Ralf Hütter (electronic organ, synthesizers) and Florian Schneider (flutes, synthesizers, electro-violin). Kraftwerk are *the* pioneers in electronic music, and well, music in general. According to music journalist Neil McCormick, Kraftwerk might be "the most influential group in pop history" NME wrote: "The Beatles and Kraftwerk may not have the ring of The Beatles and the Stones, but, nonetheless, these are the two most important bands in music history". This isn't far-fetched, folks. Kraftwerk's music has directly influenced all the electronic acts that followed in their wake but also many popular artists from diverse genres of music, including David Bowie and Depeche Mode. (Depeche Mode, one of my favorite ensembles since I was an adolescent, has also influenced countless musicians and artists. From 'pop', contemporary electronic/dance and other genres, music post-1980 truly would not be the same had they not existed. But that's another story)  

"The string quartet has been unchanged for 200 years or so," considers Alexander Balanescu, "but the format seems to be infinitely flexible." Having worked with Michael Nyman, The Pet Shop Boys, John Lurie and Kate Bush, Balanescu has made it his business to utilise that flexibility and apply the ingenuity of The Balanescu Quartet to explore uncharted territories. "We were looking for a new generation of composers, and we could not find them! So we said to ourselves, 'Why should we be restricted to what is called serious classical music?" The Quartet's first collision with pop culture came in 1989, when Neil Tennant hired the Quartet to play his own choice of Stravinsky, Webern and Shostakovich on The Pet Shop Boys' first tour, and then had Balanescu arrange their 'October Symphony'.

Alexander Balanescu (born June 11th, 1954 in Bucharest, Romania), the son of a university professor, was raised in Romania before his family moved to Israel in 1969. Alexander lived the globe trotting life of an exile, studying the violin in London and at the Julliard school in New York. Upon his return to London, he joined the Arditti Quartet, who, renowned for their commitment to new composers, would perform up to 100 new works a year. "During the three years I spent with them, I got to play the music of Ligeti, Xenakis, Carter and many others," Balanescu recalls. "I learnt a tremendous amount. But I also realized this type of contemporary music is addressing itself to a very small circle of people, really. In fact, mainly critics and other composers! So I left the Arditti Quartet to create my own, in order to do music that can immediately communicate with people". He formed the Balanescu Quartet in 1987, initially joined by Clare Connors (second violin), Bill Hawkes (viola) and Caroline Dale (cello). Having already developed strong working relationships with fellow contemporary composers Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars, the quartet has gone on to perform classical works by John Cage, Kevin Volans, and Robert Moran. They broke new ground in 1992 with the album at hand, "Possessed" for independent label Mute Records, which as mentioned above featured acoustic transcriptions of five Kraftwerk electronic pieces. This was justified thus: "There have been violins for two hundred years, and we're trying to bring them into harmony with modern compositions." The 1994 follow-up, "Luminitza", was titled after the Romanian word for ‘small light’. For Balanescu, it represented the lights beckoning him to the homeland his family left in 1989: "A little bit of hope in the darkness. That even after the downfall of Ceaucescu's totalitarian regime in 1989 still shrouds Romania". The album utilized samples and programmed percussion, and was completely self-penned by Balanescu and Connors. The duo was joined on the album by Andy Parker (viola) and Nick Cooper (cello). The following year the Balanescu Quartet collaborated with the Luminitza Chamber Orchestra on the soundtrack for Philip Haas' film "Angels & Insects" (1995). They also appeared on albums by Bryars and UK rock band Spiritualized.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s Balanescu maintained a busy working schedule, completing an album of Yellow Magic Orchestra (another important early ensemble) treatments and composing a full score for the Italian movie "Il Partigiano Johnny" (2000), in addition to working with the quartet on numerous recordings of classical and avant garde composers. The 2005 release "Maria T" was inspired by iconic Romanian folk singer Maria Tanase. Balanescu teamed up with Austrian video artist Klaus Obermaier to create a multi-media live show based around the album.

An opportunity arose when, having signed to Mute, Balanescu turned his attention to the music of Kraftwerk, for 1992's "Possessed". "I feel they're a very important name in new music, " he commented at the time. "In a sense they are electronic composers in the same way that Berio and Stockhausen are. Actually, I think Kraftwerk's music has even more power than Stockhausen's; because of its simplicity. Their sound world is enormous. They've never worked for art's sake; they're also commentators on modern life. The music is tied in with ideas about our society, and that's what really attracted me." 

Together with a reappraisal of David Byrne's "Hanging Upside Down" and three of Balanescu's own compositions: 'Possessed', 'Want Me' and 'No Time Before Time', the album was released in September 1992, and crossed the pop and classical critical divide as effortlessly as Balanescu had envisaged. For me, Balanescu's own works here barely matter (can't say I'm a fan of his personal efforts this time) nor do they hold a candle to the masterful re-workings of the Kraftwerk gems. But, no matter, it's the first 5 tracks that make this a desert-island disc for me!

Clare Connors was given the task of arranging Kraftwerk's Top 20 hits 'The Robots', 'The Model', 'Autobahn', 'Computer Love' and 'Pocket Calculator' for the string quartet. "There is a classical quality about these songs," enthused Balanescu. "They are almost mechanistic in terms of harmonic and melodic structures. And a string quartet itself is a very finely tuned mechanism. Perversely, I did not want to use any electronic effects to recreate their sound world. We had to develop a special way of playing to find new sounds and translate this music into string language. We wanted to emphasise the hardness of their sound as well as its romantic side." "Balanescu isn't alone in marrying contemporary sounds with a more sophisticated presentation, but he is the most imaginative," said NME. "Kraftwerk's electronic blueprints have made the jump to the rarefied chamber format with consummate elegance," agreed The Guardian. The Quartet performed their Kraftwerk set at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall in May 1993, and after an enthusiastic response from Kraftwerk themselves, with the German pioneers on two consecutive evenings at the 1993 ARS Electronica Festival in Linz. 

It seemed a good idea to upload the original Kraftwerk tracks as supplements and for comparison, yet I confess laziness; I know not where my original disc is, and I have it on a few hdrives too...but I have a quite a few of those as well ;) If interested, I will upload Kraftwerk in the near future-let me know.

I hope the rest of you string quartet-freaks out there enjoy this as much as I do!

Peter Warlock - Capriol Suite - The Curlew (for Tenor, Flute, English Horn and String Quartet) - Six English Tunes - Serenade for Strings - Six Italian Dance Tunes London Festival Orchestra, Ross Pople - Arte Nova 1996

"I am determined to live my life, to drain its cup to the very dregs, to live each day, each hour, feverishly perhaps just now – I am absolutely ravenous for life: what I do matters not so very much, as long as I live!" -Peter Warlock 

And "live" Warlock did indeed, in the sense that he did drain his cup of life to the very dregs, living every minute, not hour-'feverishly' I'd say. Warlock was a highly eccentric and fascinating character, and although he "burned the candles at both ends", his life was cut tragically short at the age of 36.

Peter Warlock was born, magnificently, in London's Savoy Hotel under the fractionally less magnificent birth name Philip Heseltine, on October 30th, 1894. He came from a well-to-do family of stockbrokers, solicitors, and art connoisseurs. Warlock's father died when he was only two, and he  had a close, at times claustrophobic relationship with his mother (his domineering mother, Edith Covernton, had Welsh connections and Warlock was to have strong ties with Wales throughout his life). In 1903 she married Walter Buckley Jones and mother and son moved to Wales. At preparatory school his interest in music was awakened through the pianola; his education continued at Eton where his musical interests were encouraged by a sympathetic piano teacher, Colin Taylor. It was Taylor who in 1911 obtained permission for him to attend a concert of Delius's music, an event which was to have a lasting effect on his life. Warlock's interest in Delius's music had begun as early as 1909 and, by the time of his first meeting with Delius at that concert in 1911, he had already become obsessed, something close to a mania-for Delius and his works in general. From then on a quite remarkable friendship developed between the two men and for the next seven years Delius was Warlock's mentor as well as a regular correspondent for the rest of his life.

Although it had been presumed that Warlock would follow in the family footsteps and work in either the Stock Exchange or Civil Service, there was a certain indecision about his immediate future and, on finishing school, he spent a few months in Cologne, studying German and the piano. These musical studies, however, proved unsuccessful and, resigned to a non-musical career, he entered Oxford in October 1913 to read for a degree in classics. Dissatisfied and unhappy, he left after only one year and for a short while enrolled as a student at the University of London, but this second attempt at a University career was even shorter lived than his first. In February 1915 he secured an appointment as music critic on the staff of the Daily Mail though he soon found the work frustrating and lasted in the position for barely four months. One of his early interests was Elizabethan literature and now, finding himself unemployed, he spent time in the British Museum editing early music.

Warlock’s enthusiasms were as tempestuous as his disdain, and the flip side of that antsy vitality of the opening quote was the crippling despair to which he would periodically succumb. He conducted vituperative public feuds, writing obscene limericks about his enemies which he at one stage actuality anthologized on a toilet roll.

In 1915 he met D. H. Lawrence whose work he admired, soon finding himself part of the author's circle and planning a utopian settlement in America. At the beginning of 1916 Warlock, a conscientious objector, followed Lawrence to Cornwall and involved himself in an unsuccessful venture to publish Lawrence's books. The friendship between the two men, however, proved highly volatile, and the ensuing rift brought out each man's scatological qualities: "Heseltine ought to be flushed down a sewer", said Lawrence, "for he is a simple shit". Warlock, meanwhile, used an original Lawrence manuscript as toilet paper. (he clearly fancied tp)

Soon after Warlock's return to London he met the composer and critic, Cecil Gray, and the two soon became close friends, sharing a 'bohemian' existence in Battersea. Together they planned a number of grandiose schemes by which to bring about the 'regeneration' of music in England. Warlock's meeting in June 1916 with the enigmatic, Anglo-Dutch composer Bernard van Dieren also had a profound effect on him and he now became an enthusiastic champion of his music. In November 1916, "Philip" published his first musical article (about Eugene Goosens) and then used, for the first time, the pseudonym, Peter Warlock.

Having in the meantime married an artists' model, Minnie Lucy Channing ('Puma'), who had earlier borne him a son, Warlock returned to Cornwall for a brief while in April 1917 and, outwardly, at least, resumed cordial, if distant, relations with Lawrence. What he did not know was that Lawrence was at the time writing Women in Love in which he and Puma were being introduced as two unattractive characters. When in 1921 he learnt that the book was to be published, he threatened legal action and Lawrence was forced to rewrite certain passages.

Instead of settling in Cornwall Warlock became alarmed at the renewed possibility of military conscription and in August 1917 fled to Dublin where he remained for the next year. During this period he became involved in certain occult practices which Gray claimed were psychologically damaging. This 'Irish' year was, nevertheless, a very positive and productive one, marked by a sudden surge of remarkable artistic productivity when, in the space of a fortnight, he wrote ten songs, some of which rank amongst his finest compositions. In August 1918 he returned to England and sent seven of these recently composed songs to the publisher Winthrop Rogers, again using the pseudonym Peter Warlock, for he realized that the name Heseltine was already being regarded with suspicion and hostility by the London musical fraternity. Given also its occult associations, the choice of name is significant. It was from this time on that he became more and more involved in a number of "public and private quarrels" which were to occur throughout his life, along with certain strange times (bohemian chatter included Warlock stripping in Piccadilly Circus, tearing naked through quiet village lanes on his motorbike, or conducting what British tabloids referred to as "three-in-a-bed romps").

In 1920, Rogers decided to reorganize a magazine which he owned, The Organist and Choirmaster, into something of more general interest. Accordingly "The Sackbut" was launched with Warlock as editor. Between May 1920 and March 1921 nine issues appeared and included a varied amount of material much of which was of a controversial nature. However, just as The Sackbut was beginning to succeed, Rogers, nervous of the contentious material, withdrew his financial backing, Curwen took over the publication, and an embittered Warlock was relieved of the editorship.

After this debacle an impecunious Warlock moved back to the family home in Wales where he lived almost continuously for the next three years. Here he completed a book on Delius, made a number of arrangements of Delius's works, transcribed an enormous quantity of early music and also composed a large number of original songs, completing in June of 1922 his acknowledged masterpiece, the song-cycle, "The Curlew".

During these years Warlock wrote a study of Gesualdo, a book entitled "The English Ayre", continued with his early music transcriptions, and also produced a slowly decreasing number of original compositions, including some fine songs and perhaps his best known piece, the "Capriol Suite". Having felt a slow drying up of his creative abilities, he was more than grateful when Thomas Beecham invited him to edit a magazine as part of a new operatic venture and to help in the organization of the Delius Festival held in October 1929. The festival itself was a great success but by the beginning of 1930 Beecham's venture had collapsed and Warlock was once again out of work.

Life became bleaker as the year 1930 progressed and there seemed to be little demand for his songs, if indeed the inspiration or will to compose was still there. Black moods of depression settled more frequently and he was found dead, of gas-poisoning, in his flat in Chelsea on the morning of December 17th, 1930. At the inquest the coroner recorded an open verdict as there was insufficient evidence on which to decide whether death was the result of suicide, or accident. Many people believe it was a suicide driven by his manic-depression, which I think is correct. 

Warlock left more than his music behind. Seven months after his death, one of his mistresses, Jessica Goldblatt, gave birth to a son. That boy grew up to be one of Britain’s most high-profile art critics, Brian Sewell.

Philip Heseltine/Peter Warlock

"Capriol Suite"

In 1588 a book on dance was published under the title "Orchésographie et traité en forme de dialogue par lequel toutes personnes peuvent facilement apprendre et pratiquer l’honnête exercice des dances".  A nice short name. The name of the author, Thoinot Arbeau, was in fact an anagram of his real name, Jehan Tabourot, but since he was a canon of the cathedral at Langres it was probably politic not to publish a work on such a secular entertainment as dance under his own name. As in many text books of the period the material is presented in the form of a dialogue, in this case between Arbeau and Capriol, a lawyer. This explains Warlock's choice of name for his Suite 'based on dance tunes from Arbeau's Orchésographie'. In 1925 Cyril Beaumont published an English translation of Arbeau's book, in which the musical illustrations were transcribed by Warlock, who also provided an informative preface on the dance tunes of the period. In October 1927 Warlock produced his Suite based on a selection of these tunes.

Respighi had published the first of his collections of Ancient Airs and Dances in 1917. These attractive pieces are in essence the original dance tunes harmonized in sixteenth-century style, but dressed up in full twentieth-century orchestrations. Versions for piano solo (needing large hands) were also available. The approach can be compared with that of Elgar or Henry Wood orchestrating works by Bach for full orchestra, or Busoni arranging his organ works for modern grand piano. Capriol has quite a different effect, being both simpler and more original. Though, as will be seen, the movements are based closely on Arbeau, much of the harmony is clear Warlock, and he is not afraid to add counterpoint, descants and codas.

"Base Danse" - This dance had already gone out of fashion in Arbeau’s day, but he includes it in the hope that it may be revived by ‘modest matrons’. It was stately, and the feet were not raised but glided over the floor, hence the name. Warlock follows Arbeau exactly, three melodies, each repeated, followed by a repeat of the first section, though Warlock has a short coda instead of Arbeau’s fourth tune. Each repetition is harmonized and/or orchestrated differently.

"Pavane" - Another stately dance which had taken the place of the basse danse, and was usually followed by the more lively galliard. Arbeau printed this melody in its four-part vocal form, and Warlock, after establishing the dance drum-beat gives this four-part version almost unaltered. He then repeats it with Arbeau’s tenor as a descant; however, the final phrase is given new harmony, as if to show there is a new composer present on the scene.

"Tordion" - This started life as the concluding, slighter faster, figure of the basse danse. Warlock speeds up Arbeau’s tune and lightens each repetition to such an extent that the music almost disappears.

"Bransles", originally a country round dance, was taken into aristocratic circles, and it was still danced at the court of Charles II. The longest movement in the suite, Warlock uses no fewer than five of Arbeau's tunes, gradually gathering pace until the music reaches its brilliant cross-rhythm conclusion.

"Pieds-en-l’air" - Only the first phrase appears in Arbeau, developed by Warlock into a wonderfully flowing four-phrase melody, repeated with new harmonies and given a typical slow Warlock final cadence.

"Mattachins" - The first half of the movement sets out one of Arbeau's variants of the "Air des Bouffons". The second half has no melody, being a series of discordant clashes between concentrated bodies of the strings, sounding more like Bartók than any British composer. (Warlock knew Bartók well, and admired his music.) It clearly derives from the fact that this was a sword dance, and likely very noisy!

Warlock relaxing...on a barrel

The first version of "The Curlew" was performed in 1920 and consisted of five settings of poems by W B Yeats. In 1922, in Wales, Warlock reconsidered the work. He dropped the original third and fourth songs, substituting the present long and complex third song. It was published in this revised form in 1922, receiving an award from the Carnegie Trust.

The substantial introduction opens with the cor anglais giving out the cry of the curlew, taken over by the viola. This is followed by the rocking theme on the strings also used in the Serenade. The flute then has the peewit’s call, with its many repeated notes. After a brief climax the rocking theme returns, then a cello solo leads into the first song. This passionate outburst is succeeded by a short interlude based on the introductory material. The second song is self-contained; it appeared in both versions of The Curlew, and was probably written about 1916. After the next interlude, a recitative for cor anglais and some development of the rocking theme, comes the new song, a setting of Yeats's The withering of the boughs, with three strongly contrasted verses, each ending with the words which could be considered the core of the cycle: "The boughs have withered because I have told them my dreams". 

The final interlude is dominated by chords built up from piles of fourths, and more flute calls. This leads into the last song, virtually unaccompanied, until the viola ends the work with a modified inversion of the cor anglais opening phrase, subsiding onto an empty, hopeless, bare fifth with the cello. Exceptional music-making.

The "Serenade for Strings" is dedicated "to Frederick Delius on his sixtieth birthday". Delius gave Warlock much encouragement when he was making his first attempts at composition, and in return Warlock made many arrangements of Delius's music and helped to organize concerts of his work. It is natural that a work with such a dedication should show many influences from the older composer. However, there are many passages that are pure Warlock, particularly a rocking figure on lower strings very similar to the opening string passage in The Curlew. Both works were composed between 1920 and 1922 at Cefn Bryntalch, the family home in Wales. Though on first hearing the Serenade may seem as vague as one of Delius's rhapsodies, further hearings show it to be clearly organized. There are some four sections of related but distinct melodic material, the fourth being the rocking figure mentioned above. After a brief climax combining some of this material there is a varied recapitulation, ending with a brief coda.


Peter_Warlock-Orchestral_Works-Tzadik .zip

*I see that I inadvertently left a space between the dot and the file extension "zip". So, should you have a problem opening it, simply delete the extra space so it is .zip, not ". zip"

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Nikolai Miaskovsky - Sinfonietta for Strings, Op. 32/2 - Theme and Variations - Two Pieces - Napeve - St. Petersburg Chamber Ensemble, Roland Melia - ASV 1995

I have been sick with fever all week, always doubly frustrating in the midst of summer weather! So here's a post late night Thursday that was meant for Tuesday. More journeys into sound shall be added over the weekend.

This is by far my favorite non-symphonic Miaskovsky/Myaskovsky disc, although there are several runner-ups on Olympia and other labels; one of the very fine Olympia discs I posted in 2014, which like this ASV disc also contains the "Sinfonietta", and the Olympia offers up as well the other two works that make up Opus 32 (the Sinfonietta for Strings is Op. 32 No.2). The Sinfonietta is wonderful, and I imagine that many of you will already be familiar with it. "Theme and Variations" is another strong work, and lesser known. Lesser known still, and my favorite piece on this ASV gem is the "Two Pieces", which has its glimpses of moodiness but much more light-and it's quite lyrical and gorgeously pastoral (yes, pastoral!). For me it's always been something special. "Napeve" closes the program and is barely 2 minutes long, yet it is tender and poignant, and it manages to compress much feeling within it's tiny duration.

Nikolai Yakovlevich Miaskovsky was born on April 20th 1881 in a Russian fortress town near Warsaw. A perceptive aunt discovered and nurtured his musical talents and by the age of 15 he was already composing. He began his studies privately in Moscow with Gliere but while visiting St. Petersburg he fell in with, and was inspired by, a group of progressive composers, among them Prokofiev. They provided the catalyst he needed to resign a career in the army and enter the St. Petersburg Conservatory where his teachers were to include Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov.

By 1921 he had been appointed professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory (a post he held until his death in 1950) and was on his way to earning an international reputation. A thorough and perceptive teacher he numbered Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, and Shebalin amongst his pupils and his unselfish criticism earned him the affectionate nickname "the musical conscience of Moscow". Despite his introverted and pessimistic personal nature he attempted to communicate deeply with the Soviet listener through a direct and objective style.

Although the company that he kept was progressive Miaskovsky was a stabilizing force rather than an innovator: "The tireless quest for the last word in musical technique and invention did not constitute an end in itself for me". He was a composer of principles and discipline whose music, rooted in Russian traditions, developed from complexity to clarity, from extreme chromaticism to simpler diatonicism, from polyphony to homophony. 

The "Sinfonietta for Strings" (1928/29) is redolent of the writing of Frank Bridge (Suite and Sir Roger de Coverley) and even Elgar (Introduction and Allegro). The first movement, 'Allegro, pesante e serioso. Mosso e resolute' is introduced with a unison statement of the principle theme whose weight and serious nature pervade the second movement. A faster version of this theme follows, attempting to break away from the menacing grip of the introduction- pessimism and vitality conflict dramatically The theme is treated fugally, at one point giving the impression of repeated, almost physical, resistance. The second subject introduces a rather lyrical, even comforting voice-its intimacy enhanced by the use of solo voices. The two juxtaposed themes have a dialog until the apparently useless pleading of the second theme finally gives way to harsh reprimands from the jagged first. The second movement begins with a radiant 'Andante' theme with a touch of 'Hollywood' about it, in the very best possible way and out of this Miaskovsky spins four miniature variations. These variations explore extreme characters and require a deal of virtuosity, especially from the solo violin in Variation 1 (Allegro e leggiero). In Variation 2 (Poco meno allegro, energico) violin and cello soloists engage in a heated dialog which gives way, in Variation 3 (Quasi adagio) to a dreamy duet between viola and cellos. Variation 4 (Allegro - andante) begins with a burst of energy leaving the reconciliatory voice of the solo violin to lead us, via a short burst of aggression from a solo cello, back into the embrace of the theme. The third movement is introduced by an unsettling triplet figure over which Miaskovsky develops thematic material now angular, now graceful. A prevailing sense of unease is carried over into the second theme which, although now in the major key (and thus recalling the optimism of the second movement theme), contains darker chromaticism in the accompaniment which does not allow hope to triumph. We are then assaulted by a brief but bombastic unison rhythm; Russian drama painted in the most primary of musical colors. Further development of the first and second themes brings us again to this figure and the movement ends with dramatic assertion very much anchored in the darkness of G minor.

The "Theme and Variations" begins with the statement of a theme by Grieg of vulnerable simplicity, at first in unison celli and bass, then taken over by the violins with harmony that promises of riches to come. The subsequent variations, each simply and boldly characterized, develop the potential of the theme, both rhythmically and harmonically. Variation 5 features an expansive melodic line which develops in one breath over sonorous, generous harmony, whilst Variation 8 is a fully worked out fugue and as such involves the listener in complex polyphonic rhythm. The overall impression is of a freshness which is born of the theme, although Miaskovsky cannot resist a conclusion which again, using a darker chromaticism, warns us that all is not so well as it may seem.

The modestly titled "Two Pieces" (1945) are headed 'Andante serioso e pietoso' and 'Moderato'. The first begins in the shadowy depths of the celli and bass and only gradually emerges into sunlight. There are moments of austerity reminiscent of Vaughan Williams and others which recall the best musical evocation of the English countryside (indeed we are in a universe far removed from his 27 symphonies!). The second piece is more boisterous and jaunty with a middle section which takes away abruptly from the sheer enjoyment of a country lane into the threatening world of anxiety and instability. However, we are returned as suddenly as we left, and allowed to continue to bathe in luxuriance to the end. Only in the closing bars do we sense a stab of memory-we are warned of the continuing presence of a harsher reality. Simple yet magnificent music to these ears!  

"Napeve" is a soulful, caressing melody very much in the Russian folk tradition. Miaskovsky clothes it in ever increasing chromatic harmony until at a point of maximum poignancy-it must return to the simplicity with which it began. A reflective and fitting end to a delight of a recording.   

A few of my favorite photos of Mia/Myaskovsky:

With a young Khachaturian

Great friends-Prokofiev and Myaskovsky


Monday, August 24, 2015

Obscure Finnish composer holds his free concert in Helsinki

A composer so obscure even his name is a mystery. All that is known about the maestro is that his music flows freely, he is fond of Handel, and has a brother who lives in Brussels, Belgium.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Andrie Petrov - The Creation of the World: Music for the Ballet - The Master and Margarita, Symphonic Fantasia "Farewell To......" Symphonic Fantasia - 2010 Northern Flowers

Get ready for a colorful and oddball journey propelled by the unusual and delightful music of Andrei Petrov. It's a fascinating and refreshing listen; if I had to coin a term for his music I think "chromatic psychosis" would (frequently) fit the bill ;)

St. Petersburg born and bred Andrei Pavlovich Petrov (1930–2006) was one of the most fascinatingly idiosyncratic figures of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. He had scads of talent and personality, evident from the start by a string of popular successes during the 1950s when he was still in his 20s, culminating in the 1959 ballet "The Creation of the World". In these and most of his succeeding efforts he was always his own man, stylistically and otherwise, never settling for the clichés of Party-approved assembly-line socialist realism. 

Petrov had a strong populist bent and, though his idiom remained harmonically sophisticated and adventurous, he was always clearly interested in communicating with a broad public. During his earliest years he was primarily a man of the theater (all his work has a noticeable histrionic element), concentrating mostly on ballet and film music. In some ways he comes across as a Slavic equivalent to a combination of Honegger and Malcolm Arnold, and in some scores (imo..) it's like wrapping Schulhoff, Antheil and a drop of Tischenko in a single (yet highly original) package. I have to say....I hate making references's pointless really as this music really speaks for itself and BY itself. It's just natural to look for such connectivity and often hard not to do!

"The Creation of the World" shows Petrov to be a kind of tongue-in-cheek faux-naif with its grotesque and effervescent mixture of folk, jazz, and the nursery. The idiom is comparable to the vibrant early works of his contemporary Rodion Shchedrin, such as the ballet "The Little Humped-back Horse" or the first concerto for orchestra, "Mischievous Melodies". Later on Petrov drew three separate suites from this fecund and rambunctious score, but there seems to be some confusion on disc as to their respective contents. This recording purports to offer the first and third suites but the individual movement titles and timings differ in selection and duration from lengthier excerpts once available on vinyl. What might take one by surprise is the sudden applause (I believe it's in the second movement) that enters midway, it's not clear whether Petrov incorporated this into the score or if the audience (I believe it is a live performance) is just so blissfully confused at this point that they are just joining in under the big-top :) Nevertheless the colorfully inventive and irrepressibly anarchic spirit of the music is fully present in these excellent renditions. Great stuff!

During the 1970s in the West, Petrov was represented on disc by a dramatically wild and vivid orchestral cycle, "Songs of Our Days" (reissued on CD by the Boheme Music label), together with a bombastic Poem for organ, strings, and percussion. There are also a couple of concertos (the dour Violin Concerto was once available on a Talents of Russia CD and a Trumpet Concert with winds has also been recorded) and some chamber music, but Petrov remained an essentially programmatic composer who prefers to work on a large scale. 

Andrei Petrov

As he evolved during his middle years, Petrov became even more of a conscious nationalist, finding inspiration in Russian history and literature (his two operas revolve around Peter the Great and the doomed early Soviet poet Mayakovsky) and even the Orthodox faith (one of his last works is a symphonic oratorio about the crucifixion "The Time of Christ"-which has been issued in Russia on a limited edition CD). There is also a gigantic 80-minute choral-choreographic symphony whose central figure is the great 19th-century poet Pushkin, a work also once available on vinyl :(

One of the peak achievements of his later years is "Master and Margarita" of 1985, a "symphonic fantasia" (later turned into a ballet), inspired by passages in the celebrated 1920s satirical and phantasmagorical novel by Nikolai Bulgakov, which was never published until after Stalin's death. This single-movement, 24-minute score is conceived in the form of an epic fresco with potent tragicomic overtones-a blazing, searing musical melodrama, perhaps not over-subtle but always totally gripping. Its mournful lyricism, dominated by a simple, childlike motif, begins and ends softly but builds to a midpoint climax in an eruptive and bitterly dissonant waltz, dissolving into an aftermath of funereal organ and lamenting flute. 

In 2005, one year before his death, Petrov produced his swansong, another "symphonic fantasia" teasingly entitled "Farewell to …" a kind of autobiographical summing up in which his Mahleresque affinities-albeit with strong Slavic inflections-are made more apparent. This 22-minute single movement also opens and closes quietly but in between we are treated to a violent rock-and-roll/big band "chase" sequence, densely scored and totally over-the-top with, again, an organ making a ghostly appearance accompanied by a screeching soprano. But all of a sudden we switch gears to an ethereal setting for the soprano of a couple of deeply poignant lines from a Boris Pasternak poem in "Doctor Zhivago". With this electrifying and annihilating work Petrov seems to be reflecting not only on his own life but that of his politically misguided generation.. 


Premieres & Encores: Henry Hugo Pierson - Alan Rawsthorne - David Morgan - Francis Chagrin - Peter Warlock - Malcolm Arnold - Lyrita 2007

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.



Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal: "Chamber Music" Ballaké Sissoko, Kora - Vincent Segal, Cello - No Format Records 2009

"Chamber Music" is an album of duets between French cellist Vincent Segal and Malian kora master Ballaké Sissoko (The West African kora, a 21-string harp, has been around for several hundred years). No stranger to collaborations, Sissoko has previously collaborated with the likes of Toumani Diabate on 2006’s New Ancient Strings and French pianist Ludovico Einaudi on 2005’s Diario Mali. He approached Segal after hearing him perform in Paris and pitched a unique idea: A set of duets between the two men and their instruments.

An album of instrumental cello-kora collaborations may seem a dodgy concept, but it works wonderfully and is lovely in it's own (often) quiet, intimate way. The interplay between the kora and cello is as unexpected as it is beautiful. At times playing in unison, more often in counterpoint to one another, the two sets of strings create complex rhythmic patterns that are sometimes hypnotic, elsewhere energizing, and always engaging. Segal and Sissoko trade off playing rhythm and lead, resulting in a sonic landscape that shifts constantly and retains interest throughout the long set.

This is a tranquil record overall, though never a dull one. Although there are moments of tension and long passages in which the two voices tug and tussle, the prevailing vibe is one of exploration and cooperation. On the ethereal "Houdesti", delicate tendrils of sound are repeated for minutes at a time, with minute variations in phrasing or instrumentation. Primitive percussion underscores the relatively uptempo "Ma-Ma’ FC", a playful tune that features Segal's exceptionally fluid playing.

The standout track "Oscarine" builds upon a quietly thrumming undercurrent-a plucked cello, while cascading runs of kora flitter above it. "Wo Yé N’Gnougobine" trundles along the familiar cadences of African folk rhythms, while "Histoire de Molly" toys with Celtic influences. Whatever the source material, these two musicians handle it adeptly, using the melodies and rhythms as a starting point for their explorations. Occasionally this takes them to free jazz territory, not exactly the most notable music here for this duo.

The last track "Mako Mady" is another strong work, as Segal's bass tones and Sissoko's harp-like arpeggios interweave to form something of brittle beauty, almost elegaic in tone. It's a fitting end to the record.

Guest musicians make understated appearances throughout, but the focus remains squarely on the two principals, and these other occasional sounds serve only as accents. The record is satisfyingly hefty; only two of its ten tracks clock in at less than five minutes, which allows the musicians time to explore. A special collection imo, I hope everyone enjoys the 'exotic' delicacy of it all..


Charles Koechlin - "Les Heures Persanes" (The Persian Hours) - Rheinland-Pfalz Philharmonic, Leif Segerstam Marco Polo 1993

"My dream has remained the same from the very beginning, a dream of imaginary far horizons-of the infinite, the mysteries of the night, and triumphant bursts of light."

So wrote the French composer Charles Koechlin in 1947. He was not another Scriabin however. Koechlin seems to have had his dreams earthed and so avoided the perils of Messianic self-absorption. Nor did these dreams produce cerebral results. As late as 1933 and 1946, he produced major orchestral works such as "Vers La Voûte Etoilée" and "Docteur Fabricius" that pursue these arcana but steer clear of the voluptuary nature of Scriabin’s music.

The exoticism of the orient took a firm hold of European and others cultures throughout the period of 1800-1950. Its forms were myriad from gimcrack salon to exalted inspiration. The best example is Russia, as many were particularly affected through Rimsky-Korsokov, Borodin and Ippolitov-Ivanov. The Americans succumbed as well with examples including Griffes "Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan" and Farewell’s "The Gods of the Mountains". In Belgium Biarent’s "Contes’ d’Orient" is a classic example, and a very fine piece. In England Granville Bantock (another one of my favorite British composers; indeed with works such as the magnificent "Celtic Symphony" he is at the very top of the list!) wrote many oriental works including his philosophical masterpiece "Omar Khayyam". Contemporary with the Koechlin work recorded here, Delius wrote a magical score for Flecker's play "Hassan" which in its final moonlit camel train departure comes close to Koechlin in Les Heures Persanes. In France there was an even long roster: the obvious Ravel "Sheherazade", Roussel "Padmavati", "Evocations", and works by Cras, Tomasi (some wonderful discoveries yet to be made there) and plenty of others.

"Les heures persons" or "The Persian Hours" is a long and very unusual creation which falls into 16 sections, each bearing a descriptive title. Each section is practically it's own tone-poem. The source of inspiration lay not in Koechlin's own experience of Persia, but in Pierre Loti's written account "Vers Ispahan" of a journey through that country. Koechlin started work on the piece in 1913 and completed the orchestration in 1921. In the days before the First World War Persia must have been a very peaceful land, for only in one episode, ''A travers les rues'', is there any sustained momentum in the music, or a lengthy foray into louder dynamics. In one or two other sections there are brief, lively interruptions, but nearly all the work moves at a sublime, slow pulse and consists of quiet, contemplative musings and gentle, atmospheric evocations of pictures and moods. I have derived the greatest pleasure from this music whilst listening with headphones, or with close concentration in total darkness.

Such a structure could be dull indeed if it were not for the fact that Koechlin employs a large orchestra to produce an infinitely subtle range of delicate sonorities and colourings. His harmonic language is very daring for its day, and not particularly French-there is something almost Webernesque in the way he sometimes conjures a mood from out of a silent background through, say, some imaginative instrumental combination, or an unusual rhythmic device, and then lets it retreat back into oblivion. Each section has its own very distinct character and beauty, and inspiration remains high until the final bars..


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Vítězslav Novák - Orchestral Works - Korsár Overture - Serenade - Maryša - Bergische Symphoniker, Romely Pfund - MD&G 2003

Here are three early works by the major-yet-neglected Czech composer Vítězslav Novák. The first work on the program, "Korsár" was written when Novák was 22 years old and the last, "Maryša" when he was 28 years old. The Serenade from 1894 is the most substantial work, lasting almost 37 minutes.

I have no time whatsoever to comment on the music but I shall do so later, hopefully this

Enjoy everyone


Novák_Orchestral_Works(2)  (last track & covers)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Arthur Benjamin - Violin Concerto - Romantic Fantasy for Violin, Viola & Orchestra - Elegy, Waltz and Toccata for Viola & Orchestra - RSNO, John Gibbons - Lorraine McAslan, Violin - Sarah-Jane Bradley, Viola - Dutton Epoch 2011

In 2011 Dutton chose to record three concerted works of Arthur Benjamin, two of which are world premiere recordings. However, the Viola Concerto in its earlier chamber incarnation, the "Elegy, Waltz and Toccata" was recorded in a version for viola and piano by William Primrose (also on Dutton Epoch).

Arthur Benjamin was born in Sydney, Australia in 1893, and was given his standard musical grounding in Brisbane. He was hailed as something of a genius. In 1911 he sailed to England to study at the Royal College of Music with Charles Villiers Stanford and Thomas Dunhill. He served in the Great War as a gunner in the Royal Flying Corps and was later a prisoner of war at the Ruhleben camp near Berlin. After a short period in Australia as piano professor at the New South Wales Conservatorium (1919–21) he returned to London. He was appointed to the staff at the RCM. Benjamin had a heavy schedule of performances as a concert pianist. Two of his major triumphs were the first performances of the piano concertos by Gershwin and Constant Lambert in the U.K.

In 1938 Arthur Benjamin went to Vancouver where he taught and gave radio broadcasts for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He was duly appointed to the conductorship of the CBC Symphony Orchestra. After the end of the Second World War, Benjamin returned to the United Kingdom and resumed his job at the RCM. He died in London on April 10, 1960. 

The Violin Concerto is an undoubted masterpiece and will be a real treat for new listeners. Constant Lambert noted that this work stood out "because of its general air of smartness . . . in the word's most complimentary sense. The concerto is clear, logical, slick, and well turned out . . . It is a brilliantly executed work, the type of piece in which English music is so painfully lacking". Frank Howes writing in the then current Grove Supplementary Volume suggested that this work reflected "the fashion for crisp and dry writing".

Arthur Benjamin composed the Concerto in 1931. On January 29th, 1933 it was given a 'run through' at a studio with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Antonio Brosa as soloist. Other works at that broadcast included Delius's "On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring", Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini" and Haydn's Symphony No.101 (The Clock). The program was conducted by Frank Bridge, with Benjamin conducting his own work. 

The Concerto eschewed the traditional formal structure. Benjamin has given three movements, however the first is a "Rhapsody", the second is an "Intermezzo" and the finale is, more traditionally, a "rondo". An early reviewer was concerned that the melodies played by the soloist were accompanied by short motifs picked out on the other instruments, often brass. He was troubled as to what was the main material of the movement-the epigrams or the rhapsody? It seemed to him to present a difficulty in focusing on the long-breathed phrases and the short motifs at the same time. Wendy Hiscocks, in her excellent liner-notes, suggests that there are an"almost overwhelming number of musical ideas". However she assures us that there are only some eight initial themes and four motifs to contend with! Actually there is some considerable beauty in these pages and the listener who has absorbed the Walton Violin Concerto and other works of the mid-to-late twentieth-century will have little trouble in appreciating and enjoying this complex of sounds. The music is often challenging without ever becoming too difficult or unintelligible. 

The Intermezzo is on more secure grounds, owing something to Delius and to Vaughan Williams. It has a 'lilting siciliana' as its fundamental theme. This is introspective music that allows the soloist to soliloquise in a deeply moving manner. 

The Rondo seems to have the energy and vitality of Stravinsky as its motivation without it in any way being a parody. The soloist is called upon to provide all sorts of technical gymnastics. Yet, even in amongst all this energy and drive there is a certain sadness and reflection. However, by the end of the work all this is blown away and the work ends in a blaze of excitement and energy. 

A Times reviewer on January 31st 1933 suggested that this work contained "much of interest, some moments of beauty and some crisp effect, but it is not a violin concerto". Everyone here and now would disagree. Things have come a long way since 1933-formally, melodically and harmonically. Certainly, anyone coming to this work for the first time will have no difficulty in regarding the work as an entity. It is a concerto by any canons of criticism applied in our time. Furthermore, after a few hearings listeners will likely come to see this as a masterpiece. 

The "Romantic Fantasy for Violin and Viola" is a substantial piece lasting well over twenty minutes. It was composed in 1936 in response to a request from the great violist Lionel Tertis. The score is dedicated to Arnold Bax. In fact, Lewis Foreman has noted the opening theme of the work quotes the 'faery horn theme' from Bax's "In the Faery Hills". 

The work is in three well-balanced movements with an opening Nocturne, a Scherzino and a Sonata-Finale. However the design of the piece allows the movements to slip into each other. 

The combination of violin and viola in concerted form is somewhat unusual. Yet Benjamin's mastery of technique and orchestral colouring makes this seem perfectly natural. In fact the instruments do not compete: they support, comment and engage with each other. 

However, this is not a simple work, there sounds to be difficulties on every page. In fact, William Primrose, who recorded this work, has noted the tricky cadenzas in this work, not only for the soloists but also for the ensemble. 

The Romantic Fantasy was first issued on RCA in 1965 with Heifetz and Primrose as the soloists. 

The final work on this disc is an orchestration of the Viola Sonata dating from 1942. The work is also known as the "Elegy, Waltz and Toccata" and was originally composed for the great violist William Primrose. Benjamin and Primrose had already worked in partnership. There were recordings of the "Jamaican Rumba", "Matty Rag", "Cookie" and "From San Domingo". This is a dark work that does not entirely endear itself to the listener-at least not on a first (or even second) hearing. 

Lewis Foreman has noted that the Viola Sonata is essentially a "wartime"piece-with the central 'Waltz' being more like a 'danse macabre' rather than anything more romantically inclined. The 'Toccata' has been described as projecting a "manic, surreal drive".

The Concerto was first heard at the 1949 Cheltenham Festival with Sir John Barbirolli conducting the Halle Orchestra and with Frederick Riddle as the soloist. Amusingly, the contemporary reviewer in The Musical Times notes the ready charm (!) and vitality expected of Arthur Benjamin. Both adjectives do not apply to this work. Yet there are some impressive pyrotechnics for the soloist to engage with. 

Interestingly, Hans Keller writing in 1950 suggested that "sadly enough, it is the arrangement of his own viola sonata as viola concerto which would appear to misfire in parts, both because the orchestration tautologizes and because it sometimes dims perception".

If the listener is looking for a stylistic comparison, it would be best to view this work in the light of Hindemith. However as with the concerto, this work is not beholden to anyone.

Enjoy this Dutton jewel!