On record – Peter Dickinson: Chamber & Instrumental Music (Toccata Classics)

Peter Dickinson
Violin Sonata (1961)
Air for solo violin (1959)
Metamorphosis for solo violin (1955, rev 1971)
String Quartet no. 1 (1958)
Fantasia for solo violin (1959)
Lullaby for violin and piano (1967)
String Quartet No. 2 (1976)
Quintet Melody for solo violin (1956)
Tranquillo for violin and piano (1986, rev. 2018)

*Peter Sheppard Skaerved (violin); **Roderick Chadwick (piano); ***Kreutzer Quartet [Peter Sheppard Skaerved, Mihailo Trandafilovski (violins), Clifton Harrison (viola), Neil Heyde (cello)]

Toccata Classics TOCC0538 [71’26”]

Producer Peter Sheppard Skaerved
Engineer Jonathan Haskell

Recorded 27 July & 29 November 2017, 16 January & 26 March 2019

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics turns its attention to Peter Dickinson (b.1934), whose impeccably crafted and stylistically wide-ranging music has enhanced British music over almost seven decades – not least these chamber and instrumental works that are all recorded here for the first time.

What’s the music like?

Dickinson might consider the Violin Sonata to be among his more challenging works, but its serial technique is subtly embedded into outer Fast movements whose rhythmic tensility has an engagingly Bartókian impetus, while the central Slow movement alludes to Greensleeves near the start of its spare yet eloquent and at times impassioned course. At the other end of the scale, Lullaby is one of several warmly attractive and immediately accessible pieces derived from the abandoned opera The Unicorns, while Tranquillo is a recasting of part of the central section from the Violin Concerto (recorded on Heritage HTGCD276 along with concertos for organ and piano) Dickinson wrote as an In memoriam to Ralph Holmes – with whom he often gave recitals, not least of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata which makes a belated appearance here.

Dickinson’s output for solo violin is hardly less significant – whether with the folk-inflected plaintiveness of Air or the deftly accruing velocity of Metamorphosis (that both were initially conceived for flute makes this idiomatic new guise the more striking). More ambitious is the Fantasia with its grandly (but never wantonly) rhetorical gestures and vaunting passagework that aptly evokes the skyline of New York – in which city the composer studied during 1958-61, a time of considerable social and cultural upheaval. No less affecting despite (or perhaps because of?) its brevity, Quintet Melody is all that has survived from a quintet written when a Cambridge undergraduate. Dickinson has composed music for solo instruments throughout his composing career, of which those featured here constitute some of the most appealing.

Surprising that Dickinson’s string quartets have only now received their first recordings. The First Quartet opens with an intensively argued Allegro whose energy is the more palpable for its formal concentration, then the haunting ‘night music’ overtones of the central Lento – not least its quietly ecstatic solos and trenchant rhythmic ostinatos – carry over to a final Allegro whose ‘misterioso’ marking denotes its speculative progress to an eruptive climax and highly equivocal close. Unfolding as an eventful and often ingenious single movement, the Second Quartet evokes Ives in the way strings wend their leisurely yet methodical way to a rendition of the ‘rag’ that piano – heard on tape – has been sounding fragmentarily all the while. That this arrival is anything but decisive only makes the process of getting there more intriguing.

Does it all work?

It does, not least as Dickinson is a master of ‘less is more’. The longest of these pieces is little over 15 minutes in length, but this does not detract from the variety of incident and expression that the composer has invested into their content – not to mention their technical challenges.

Is it recommended?

It is, given the all-round excellence of the performances and the ideal ambience in which they have been recorded. A fluent author, Dickinson’s own observations on each piece are nothing if not apposite, and it is to be hoped that a follow-up disc might yet emerge from this source.



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


You can read about Peter Dickinson at his website

Listening to Beethoven #38 – Duo for two flutes in G major

A Man in Eighteenth Century Dress with a Flute, in His Study by (Henry Hetherington Emmerson) (1877)

Duo for two flutes in B flat major WoO 26 (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

1 Allegro con brio
2 Menuetto quasi allegretto

Dedication ‘for friend Degenharth’
Duration 6′


Background and Critical Reception

This is the first of Beethoven’s chamber works not to include the piano – though it was not published until after his death. The dedication, ‘for friend Degenharth’, is to a lawyer, a member of Beethoven’s close circle of friends. It has prompted speculation that the piece may have been a commission or a present.

Either way, it is a short work in two movements of roughly equal length, and continues the close affinity Beethoven had with the flute at this time. Technical demands are thought to be few (according to Flutetunes.com at any rate!) so the music is suitable for most ability levels.


The two movements of the Duo are charming. The melodic parts are closely intertwined in the first section, like butterflies dancing in a breeze. Beethoven shifts to the minor key half way through, as though intending to move off on a set of variations. The music has a more graceful feel at this point, but then the dancing butterflies return.

The instruments stay close for the second movement, where the second flute has a simple arpeggio ‘Alberti’ figuration. There is more of a dance form evident here, in triple time.

Beethoven’s domestic side is on show here, with communal music making the main aim. As a result there is nothing too challenging here, but the charms are many.

Recordings used

Patrick Gallois, Jean-Pierre Rampal (DG)
Patrick Gallois, Kazunori Seo (Naxos)

Gallois and Rampal are brilliant together, and it proves almost impossible to tell their instruments apart at times!

Spotify links

Patrick Gallois, Jean-Pierre Rampal

Patrick Gallois, Kazunori Seo

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1792 Haydn Piano Trio in G major HXV:32

Next up 8 Variations on a theme by Count Waldstein

Listening to Beethoven #37 – An Minna

Peanuts comic strip, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

An Minna WoO 115 for voice and piano (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known
Text Anonymous
Duration 0’55”


Background and Critical Reception

Very little is known or written about this short song, but it appears to be another of the small nuggets Beethoven completed before departure from Bonn to Vienna in late 1792. The text is anonymous and even a translation could not be found online.


An Minna is a brief song indeed. Barely has it started then Beethoven wraps it up very quickly! It has a positive complexion though, despite slightly awkward phrasing (no doubt text related). The vocal line feels quite plaintive in the baritone version, and the piano has plenty of room.

Recordings used

Peter Schreier (tenor), Walter Obertz (piano)
Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (piano)

As befits most of his Beethoven songs so far, Schreier does not hang about but has a nice, bright tone. Prey, in a lower ranger, is fuller and broader in scope.

Spotify links

Peter Schreier & Walter Obertz

Hermann Prey & Leonard Hokanson

Also written in 1792 Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle La Marseillaise

Next up Duo for two flutes in G major

On record – Roderick Williams, Michael Dussek & Bridge Quartet: Those Blue Remembered Hills (EM Records)

The Western Playland (and of Sorrow) (1920)
Edward, Edward (1914)
By A Bierside (1916)
String Quartet in D minor (1924-5)
There was a Maiden (1915)
Girl’s Song (1916)
King David (1919)
The Mugger’s Song (1919)

Roderick Williams (baritone), Michael Dussek (piano), Bridge Quartet [Colin Twigg, Catherine Schofield (violins), Michael Schofield (viola), Lucy Wilding (cello)]

EM Records EMR CD065 [80’52”]

Producer Rupert Marshall-Luck
Engineer Patrick Allen

Recorded 4 & 5 June 2018 at Potton Hall, Suffolk

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The latest release from EM Records is largely devoted to music by Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), including the second of his song-cycles with ensemble and the first recording of a large-scale string quartet composed before encroaching mental illness led to a cessation of his creativity.

What’s the music like?

Time was when Gurney was viewed as a poet who also wrote songs, but recent research has unearthed piano music, two orchestral pieces and numerous chamber works. Just how much he wrote and destroyed in a period of activity through to 1927 will probably never be known.

It was the success of Ludlow and Teme (recorded on EMRCD036) which led Gurney to essay a second song-cycle after A. E. Housman. Equally well received, The Western Playland was revised in 1925, when (and of Sorrow) was added to the title as if to point up that emotional dislocation the composer felt when incarcerated at City of London Mental Hospital – far from his beloved Gloucestershire. The eight songs traverse a wide expressive range, with such as a limpid setting of Loveliest of Trees and a purposeful take on Is my Team Ploughing very different in manner yet comparable in quality to those by Butterworth or Vaughan Williams. The forced jollity of the initial Reveille strikes a slightly jarring note, but the final March conjures a luminous poise which is further enhances by its extended instrumental postlude.

Also featured are two of Gurney’s songs with piano – that of the anonymous ballad Edward, Edward summons a malevolence that finds natural contrast with the sombre wartime (indeed, trench-bound) setting of John Masefield’s By a Bierside. Four songs by Herbert Howells are a reminder of the close personal and regional ties between these composers – three of which are appealing in their craftsmanship, with the setting of Walter de la Mare’s King David as affecting as any song from this period and justifiably receiving of the poet’s endorsement.

The centrepiece here is a String Quartet in D minor – one of several written during Gurney’s incarceration and which, fortunately for posterity, he was able to hear performed thanks to the redoubtable musicologist Marion M. Scott. Extensive revisions made deciphering his ultimate intentions more difficult, but the time and effort has been well worthwhile. The EMR release referred to above contains the original version of the work’s Adagio, and the revision as heard here only intensifies its anguished pathos. This, along with the ruminative ensuing intermezzo, are the highlights of an ambitious entity – the motivic ingenuity of whose opening movement feels undermined by lack of textural or rhythmic clarity; this latter failing arguably inhibiting the vehemence and drama which otherwise inform the finale as it surges to its fatalistic close.

Does it all work?

Almost. Roderick Williams is at his perceptive best in the songs, sensitively accompanied by Michael Dussek. The Bridge Quartet is superb in the song-cycle and makes a fine effort in the quartet, of which further performances are needed to assess the full extent of its achievement.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Gurney is a composer whose stature has only latterly become apparent, and to which this disc is a signal contribution. Spacious and natural sound balance, together with detailed and often insightful annotations, further enhance what is another indispensable EMR release.

Listen and Buy

You can discover more about this release at the EM Records website, where you can hear clips from the recording and also purchase.

On record: Steve Elcock: Orchestral Music, Volume Two (Toccata)

Steve Elcock
Incubus Op.28 (2017)
Haven: Fantasia on a Theme by J.S. Bach Op.4 (1995, rev. 2011-17)
Symphony no.5 Op.21 (2014)

Siberian Symphony Orchestra / Dmitry Vasiliev

Producer/Engineer Sergei Zhiganov
Recorded 8-12 July 2019, Philharmonic Hall, Omsk

Toccata Classics TOCC0445 [77’20”]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics continues its coverage of Steve Elcock (b1957) with this second instalment of orchestral music – dominated by the Fifth Symphony with provocative allusions to its most famous predecessor, together with shorter yet distinctive pieces from either end of his output.

What’s the music like?

Although it marks a return to the four-movement format of his first two such works, the Fifth Symphony is hardly conventional in formal or expressive follow through. As with the almost contemporaneous Fifth by the late Christopher Rouse, the presence of that archetypal ‘No. 5’ feels undeniable – even more so given Elcock’s explicit referencing at the start of each outer movement; a head-on approach hardly less confrontational than that with Beethoven Nine in Tippett’s Third Symphony a half-century ago. In all other respects, Elcock goes entirely his own way: the visceral charge of that beginning quickly subsides into an opening movement whose restive searching seems becalmed emotionally while not tonally, as the music strives increasingly to regain its initial energy before relapsing into a mood of pervasive desolation.

The next two movements unfold without pause as a contrasting duality. As its title suggests, the Ostinato builds explosive impetus over a remorseless rhythmic motto that climactically implodes to leave a musing clarinet melody as expands into the ensuing Canzonetta. Less a slow movement than extended intermezzo, what might have brought a return to the earlier sombreness rather assumes a more compassionate aura that makes possible the final Allegro. Comparable to the first movement in its scale, this unfolds as a sonata design of unflagging dynamism whose twin themes are drawn into a process of continuous development on route to a peroration which, though it could hardly evince the triumph of Beethoven, is never less than affirmative in its bringing the work decisively and, moreover, demonstrably full circle.

A notable achievement, then – less ruggedly distinctive if ultimately more cohesive than the Third Symphony (recorded on TOCC0400), and evidently a statement with which to reckon. It is preceded here by two pieces that further attest to the consistency of Elcock’s underlying vision. Haven: Fantasia on a Theme by J.S. Bach takes the Sarabande from the First Violin Partita as basis for a series less of variations than of paraphrases such as pass from nostalgia, through militaristic brutality, to renewed concord with the theme newly explicit at the close. Derived from a recent string quartet, Incubus is a study in nocturnal imaginings – ostensibly the result of insomnia – which seems predictable only in its marshalling a disparate range of ideas into a taut ‘curtain raiser’ whose outcome is the more telling for being so unexpected.

Does it all work?

It does. Just occasionally taxed in those more demonstrative passages, the Siberian Symphony Orchestra otherwise yields little to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as to the conviction of its playing, with Dmitry Vasiliev demonstrating an absolute grasp of Elcock’s combative musical vision.

Is it recommended?

It is. Orchestral sound has commendable heft and perspective, while Francis Pott’s extensive annotations situate all three pieces within an appropriately wide context. Hopefully Elcock’s Fourth Symphony will feature on the next volume in what is an absorbing and valuable series.



For further information, audio clips and purchase information visit the Toccata Classics website. For more on Steve Elcock you can visit the composer’s website