Playlist – Digitonal

It gives us great pleasure to welcome Digitonal‘s Andy Dobson to Arcana’s playlist section.

He has been busy working on album number four for Digitonal, Set The Weather Fair – released only last Friday on the Just Music label. It features a typically blissful set of sonic pictures, with extra-descriptive hues from Dobson’s clarinet and cello.

The Spotify playlist here is a selection of music that led to the album, and it includes restful but thoroughly immersive ambient music from varied sources such as Loscil, Pye Corner Audio, Philip Glass and BT:

Our thanks to Andy for this regenerating collection of music. Digitonal’s new album Set The Weather Fair is out now on Just Music. You can listen and purchase on the Bandcamp embed below:

On record – Matthew Taylor: Symphonies nos.4 & 5 (BBC NOW / Woods) (Nimbus)

Matthew Taylor
Symphony no.4 Op.54 (2015-6)
Symphony no.5 Op.59 (2017-8)
Romanza for strings Op.36a (2006-7)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Symphonies), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Nimbus Alliance NI6406 [63’56”]

Producer Simon Fox-Gál
Engineers Simon Smith, Mike Cox (Symphony no.4)

Recorded 8 June 2019 at St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London (Romanza); 14 January 2020 at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff (Symphonies)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A new release of music by Matthew Taylor, including the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, that means all of the composer’s works in this genre have now been commercially recorded (the First and Third on Dutton Epoch CDLX7178; the Second on Toccata Classics TOCC0175).

What’s the music like?

Symphonism goes back almost to the start of Taylor’s composing, his Sinfonia Brevis having been finished when he was 21, and symphonies have continued to appear at regular intervals across his output. Written respectively to mark the 50th anniversary of Kensington Symphony Orchestra, and as the third instalment within the English Symphony Orchestra’s 21st Century Symphony Project, these two pieces feel typical not least as regards their absolute contrasts of form and expression; while being equally unmistakable as the music of just one composer.

An in memoriam to composer John McCabe – dedicated to his widow Monica – the Fourth Symphony falls into three continuous movements. The first, marked Giubiloso, maintains its energy across distinct shifts of dynamics and activity (the evocative writing for woodwind and harp redolent of Tippett); subsiding from its impassioned climax into an Adagio where strings take the foreground in music of textural richness and emotional depth. Beginning at a decided remove from what has gone before, the Finale buffa exudes a nonchalant humour (reminiscent of Arnold), complemented by a deftly scored episode that cannily prepares for the denouement. This is purposefully controlled through to a climax that recalls the work’s opening theme before an ending as feels the more decisive for its literally coming to a halt.
Heard as an interlude between two imposing statements, the Romanza could hardly be better placed. An arrangement of the second movement of Taylor’s Sixth Quartet (Toccata Classics TOCC0144), it testifies to the suffused lyricism evident in this composer’s writing for strings.

The Fifth Symphony is only Taylor’s second such work in four movements, but its formal and expressive emphasis differs greatly. Indeed, the initial Allegro is unprecedented in his output for sheer volatility (not unlike that of Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ Quartet), its driving impetus and explosive culmination creating a momentum which is pointedly left unfulfilled by the ensuing intermezzo-like Allegrettos. The first (a tribute to composer and teacher

Symphonism goes back almost to the start of Taylor’s composing, his Sinfonia Brevis having been finished when he was 21, and symphonies have continued to appear at regular intervals across his output. Written respectively to mark the 50th anniversary of Kensington Symphony Orchestra, and as the third instalment within the English Symphony Orchestra’s 21st Century Symphony Project, these two pieces feel typical not least as regards their absolute contrasts of form and expression; while being equally unmistakable as the music of just one composer.

An in memoriam to composer John McCabe – dedicated to his widow Monica – the Fourth Symphony falls into three continuous movements. The first, marked Giubiloso, maintains its energy across distinct shifts of dynamics and activity (the evocative writing for woodwind and harp redolent of Tippett); subsiding from its impassioned climax into an Adagio where strings take the foreground in music of textural richness and emotional depth. Beginning at a decided remove from what has gone before, the ‘Finale buffa’ exudes a nonchalant humour (reminiscent of Arnold), complemented by a deftly scored episode that cannily prepares for the denouement. This is purposefully controlled through to a climax that recalls the work’s opening theme before an ending as feels the more decisive for its literally coming to a halt.

Heard as an interlude between two imposing statements, the Romanza could hardly be better placed. An arrangement of the second movement of Taylor’s Sixth Quartet (Toccata Classics TOCC0144), it testifies to the suffused lyricism evident in this composer’s writing for strings.

The Fifth Symphony is only Taylor’s second such work in four movements, but its formal and expressive emphasis differs greatly. Indeed, the initial Allegro is unprecedented in his output for sheer volatility (not unlike that of Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ Quartet), its driving impetus and explosive culmination creating a momentum which is pointedly left unfulfilled by the ensuing intermezzo-like Allegrettos. The first (a tribute to composer and teacher Cy Lloyd) is as terse and equivocal as the second (a tribute to Angela Simpson, wife of composer Robert Simpson) is poised and wistful. It thus remains for the final Adagio (a tribute to the composer’s mother Brigid) to secure that eloquent apotheosis towards which the whole work had been headed, as this moves with sustained power toward its plangent twin climaxes then on to a resigned coda.

Does it all work?

Indeed. In all three pieces, Kenneth Woods secures a dedicated response from the players so Taylor’s exacting yet practicable writing is heard to advantage, not least in acoustics whose immediacy emphasizes this music’s rapt inwardness as keenly as its untrammelled energy.

Is it recommended?

Yes, and not least for a booklet that features informative commentaries by both composer and conductor, and striking artwork by Andrea Kelland. An introductory portrait by James Francis Brown mentions Taylor as having written six symphonies: hopefully, no mere slip of the pen!

Listen & Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

Read

You can discover more about Matthew Taylor by heading to his own website

On paper – Humperdinck: A Life of the composer of Hänsel und Gretel by William Melton (Toccata Press)

Humperdinck: A Life of the Composer of Hänsel und Gretel by William Melton, with a Foreword by John Mauceri
Toccata Press [hardback, 456pp, b/w illustrations, ISBN 978-0-907689-92-8]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Several years ago the singer formerly known as Arnold Dorsey was asked how he had chosen his stage-name, to which he replied that it was his manager’s decision and he had simply gone along with it – having known nothing about the composer in question and remaining ignorant of his music through to the present. Certainly, he took nothing by him in his eight choices on Desert Island Discs in 2004. Hardly unexpected, beyond confirmation that, then as before, the real Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) was fair game on account of his diminished status.

A status that, even now, is hardly what it was during the quarter-century up to the composer’s death and which itself was owing almost entirely to Hänsel und Gretel – the ‘fairy tale opera’ whose wildfire success throughout the Western world transformed Humperdinck’s reputation, in his fortieth year, from provincial teacher and well regarded purveyor of cantatas and songs to the leading German composer of his generation. Such success might have transformed his professional and financial standing, but it also created an aesthetic image such as could only become more stereotyped as time passed. Such acclaim that he later achieved was inevitably viewed (and not merely by his detractors) within the context of that one work, ensuring that Humperdinck’s legacy was fixed in the public mind even had he ceased composing thereafter.

This is reflected not least by the dearth of writing about his music, so that William Melton’s remark about this being the first biography in English is no idle claim. With the centenary of Humperdinck’s death barely a year away, its issue could not have been more timely – were it less than a total success. Melton, whose research into and publication on the ‘lost generation’ of Romantic composers is considerable and ongoing, has left little to chance when bringing to light vital information which, while it may have been known to specialists, has lain dormant in archives on both sides of the Atlantic until the present. Its sifting and distillation enabled a deeper appreciation than seemed possible or, indeed, necessary – Humperdinck emerging as the pivotal figure in German music from the demise of Wagner to the emergence of Strauss.

Although he does not exclude musical examples or eschew analytical discussion, Melton’s is primarily a biographical study as surveys Humperdinck’s emergence – halting and thereafter effortful – from his Rhenish origins, via dogged studies then extensive journeying in France and Spain, to his unexpected involvement with the circle around Wagner; on whose Parsifal he left more than a passing impression. Staying on cordial terms with Cosima and Siegfried, his distancing from the ‘cult of Bayreuth’ says much for his unforced independence of spirit.
Melton is mindful not to divide Humperdinck’s career into a crude ‘before and after’ Hänsel scenario, even if those changes arguably inhibited his future development with the demands of teaching and other duties. Succeeding operas Dornröschen and Die Heirat wider Willen enjoyed no more than succès d’estime, with his wartime stage-works Die Marketenderin and Gaudeamus hampered from the outset by poor librettos. Most significant was Königskinder, evolving from an innovative yet impractical melodrama into a drama of no mean profundity, but initial success in New York and Europe was not sustained after the outbreak of war; its deeper subtleties even now insufficiently acknowledged. The composer thought it his greatest achievement, making the lack of a UK production for almost three decades more regrettable.

Throughout this study, Melton is an informed and reliable guide to those many incidents and intrigues that make Wilhelmine Germany so fascinating if dismaying an environment; over the course of which, Humperdinck’s life unfolds as though intent on shunning the limelight into which he had been thrust. His final decade makes for poignant reading as he battles the effects of a serious stroke, then endures the death of his wife along with various friends and colleagues. His last creative act was not musical but literary: an autobiographical fantasy, Die Zeitlose, where he finds himself transported back almost half a century to his hometown of Siegburg – experiencing with accrued wisdom the sights and persons of his formative years. His death soon after the onset of the Weimar Republic could not have seemed less relevant.

The book is rounded off by a full Catalogue of Works then an extensive Bibliography, with the numerous illustrations reproduced as part of the actual text rather than as separate plates. Three decades ago, Toccata Press put many in its debt with the first biography in English of George Enescu: if Humperdinck emerges as a less significant figure, this is hardly the fault of Melton who, in his brief yet pertinent Epilogue, describes the composer as ‘Not a Genius, but a Master’: the case for which is presented methodically and persuasively throughout his book.

Further information can be found here

On record – Lysander Piano Trio: Mirrors – 21st Century American Piano Trios (First Hand)

Cohen Around the Cauldron (2016)
Moya
Ghostwritten Variations (2015/16)
Higdon
Love Sweet (2013)*
Belimova
Titania and Her Suite (2014)
Cooper
An den Wassern zu Babel (2010)
Ciupinski
The Black Mirror (2013/14)

Lysander Piano Trio (Itamar Zorman (violin), Michael Katz (cello), Liza Stepanova (piano) with *Sarah Shafer (soprano)

First Hand Records FHR111 [71’26”]

Producer & Engineer Ryan Streber, *Paul Griffith

Recorded 2 & 3 January 2018 at Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York; * 21 February 2018 at Performing Arts Center, Athens, Georgia

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

An enterprising and finely realized collection of recent works for piano trio (all of them first recordings) by the Lysander Piano Trio, an ensemble now well established on the American recital circuit, which here gets to display its versatility and conviction in abundant measure.

What’s the music like?

As varied as the composers featured. Senior among them, Jennifer Higdon (b1962) contributes in Love Sweet a song-cycle very different from the extrovert orchestral works for which she is best known; the unusual yet effective combination of soprano and piano trio affording a deft characterization of these five poems by early twentieth century author Amy Lowell that trace the fateful unfolding of a relationship with ruminative poignancy. Following directly, Titania and Her Suite by Sofia Belimova (b2000) is a disarmingly assured miniature by a composer then in her early teens – its animated and unpredictable take on the figure from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream having a maturity and assurance as to put into the shade efforts by other more recent prodigies. Where its composer goes from here should prove fascinating.

Either side of these works, Ghostwritten Variations by Reinaldo Moya (b1984) draws on four seminal novels of the post-war era in four variations on a theme whose understated eloquence is ideally suited to the respectively searching, agitated, insouciant and disembodied treatments which follow – so making for an trajectory enhanced by this theme’s audible presence at each stage. As its title suggests, An den Wassern zu Babel by William David Cooper (b1986) draws on Psalm 37 not only as text but also the melody found in a setting contemporaneous with the German translation by Martin Luther; from which emerges a continuous set of six variations whose contrasts are permeated (never slavishly) by the spirit of German expressionism from the early twentieth century, and in what becomes a ‘mirror’ as revealing as it is disconcerting.

With its influences ranging from prog rock to klezmer, Around the Cauldron by Gilad Cohen (b1980) opens the programme with a vividly evocative sequence inspired by the three witches (also known as the weird sisters) from Shakespeare’s Macbeth; these seven tightly contrasted vignettes taking in a Witches Waltz of glinting irony then culminating in Sacrificial which is hardly less chilling than the Third Ear Band’s score for Roman Polanski’s (in)famous film rendering. Concluding this collection, The Black Mirror by Jakub Ciupinski (b1981) takes up procedures associated with Baroque painter Claude Lorrain – the piece slowly emerging from tentative piano phrases and string harmonics to a climax whose etherealized intensity could not be better described than by the composer’s description of ‘‘an explosion in slow motion’’.

Does it all work?

Yes – inasmuch that there are no also-rans among the pieces featured and, even if there were, the unwavering commitment of the musicians would likely be more than compensation; not least Sarah Shafer, whose singing adds much to the affecting aura of the Higdon song-cycle.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound presents an often difficult medium to best advantage, while credit should be given to the booklet which features succinctly insightful notes on each piece along with biographies of each of the composers and artists – not to mention those five Lowell poems.

Listen and Buy

You can discover more about this release at the First Hand Records website, where you can also purchase the recording.

On record – Martyn Hill, Meriel Dickinson & Peter Dickinson: James Joyce’s Favourite Songs (Heritage)

Chamber Music: Thirty-Two Songs by G. Molyneaux Palmera The Joyce Book: Thirteen Songs, by Moeran, Bax, Roussel, Hughes, Ireland, Sessions, Bliss, Howells, Antheil, Carducci, Goossens, C. W. Orr and van Dierenb

bMeriel Dickinson (mezzo-soprano), aMartyn Hill (tenor), Peter Dickinson (piano)

Heritage HTGCD175 [71’28”]

Producer Jillian M. White
Remastering Engineers John Marsden, Peter Newble

Recorded 7 December 1981, BBC Broadcasting House, London (The Joyce Book); 18 November 1986, St. George’s Brandon Hill (Chamber Music)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Heritage further expands its Peter Dickinson discography with these song-cycles in which he appears as pianist, setting poems from James Joyce’s two collections of verse; both heard in recordings which were first broadcast in the 1980s and now rescued from the BBC archives.

What’s the music like?

The major rediscovery here is an almost complete traversal of Chamber Music by Geoffrey Molyneaux Palmer (1992-1957), English born but long resident in Dublin where he worked as church organist and composer. Despite the author’s enthusiastic endorsement, Palmer was never to finish the project, despite his leaving blank pages for those four poems (Nos. 12, 29, 32 and 33) still awaiting music. Through the tenacity of Myra Teicher Russel, the manuscript was located at Southern Illinois University in 1981 with a studio broadcast on BBC Radio 3 seven years later (preceded, as this author recalls, by a fascinating introduction on the Music Weekly programme). Thanks to the foresight of BBC producer Jillian White, that broadcast was subsequently archived and can finally enjoy a welcome if belated commercial release.

In stylistic terms, Palmer settings are very much ‘turn of the century’ in their melding of an inherently English lyricism with harmonic subtleties redolent of Fauré or early Debussy. As ordered by Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, these 36 poems pursue an ‘innocence to experience’ trajectory via a relationship which is tentatively envisaged before being passionately lived then regretfully abandoned. Throughout the sequence, Palmer is acutely attentive to those flights of fancy with which Joyce opens out his poems’ expressive potency – tailoring his response to the intricacies of the text at hand while running several songs together so as to accentuate cumulative intensity overall. A pity the climactic XXXIII remained unset, but    the composer’s response to the stark seascape of XXXVI yields a suitably plangent close.

Also included is The Joyce Book, 13 settings taken from Joyce’s subsequent collection Pomes Penyeach which was published in Paris in 1927 and accorded musical treatment thanks to the prompting of Irish editor Herbert Hughes. That the resultant settings included two American, a French and an Italian composer confirms the international standing Joyce by then enjoyed; further underlined by the deluxe edition with which this collection was issued in 1933, a year after its public premiere in London. Stylistically the settings are as diverse as the composers represented: among the most distinctive are the lilting wistfulness of Hughes’s She weeps over Rahoon, easeful rapture of Arthur Bliss’s Simples and suffused ecstasy of Bernard van Dieren’s A Prayer on which both this ‘cycle’ and Joyce’s collection reach their close.

Does it all work?

It does, given the expressive consistency of Palmer’s settings as also the diversity of those in the later miscellany. Martyn Hill was among the leading lyric tenors of his generation, with Meriel Dickinson seldom equalled for her conveying of the emotional sense behind the text.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least when Peter Dickinson is an insightful accompanist and provides the detailed commentaries, while the sound has come up well in remastering (the latter collection a shade reverberant). Required listening, not only for admirers of Joyce or the English song tradition.

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release at the Heritage Records website, where you can also purchase the recording.

Read

You can read about Peter Dickinson at his website