Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Composer Portrait – Walter Arlen

Walter Arlen
Songs of Songs (1955)
The Poet in Exile (1991)

Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano), Gwilym Bowen (tenor), Thomas Mole (baritone), BBC National Chorus of Wales, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Studio recording at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 17-20 February 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

Although he is likely best known by his trenchant music criticism for the Los Angeles Times, Vienna-born Walter Arlen has made a distinguished contribution to music administration and is increasingly being recognized as a composer. Several releases of his songs and piano music can be heard on the Gramola label, and this latest of the English Symphony Orchestra online concerts provides a welcome introduction to two of his works that feature orchestra – the one drawing on ancient Jewish sources with the other on poems from a leading modern author.

Whether The Song of Songs is indeed harbinger of monogamy in the Judeo-Christian moral code, it contains some of the eloquent expression in either of the Biblical testaments and has long provided a potent inspiration for musical treatment. In just under 30 minutes, Arlen’s ‘dramatic poem’ takes in the main narrative – the lively opening chorus features much sub-divided writing for female chorus underpinned by incisive orchestral textures. As the piece unfolds, it becomes evident that emotional emphasis is placed upon the solo contributions – whether those of King Solomon as sung with burnished warmth by Thomas Mole, those of the Shepherdess rendered with winsome poise and not a little insouciance by Anna Huntley, or those of the Shepherd which Gwilym Bowen here projects with no mean virility but also tenderness. Nor is the BBC National Chorus of Wales found wanting in passages with textural intricacy and intonational accuracy at a premium. If the final resolution does not bring the expected closure, the direct and unaffected appeal of this setting certainly warrants revival.

Yet the real discovery is The Poet in Exile, a song-cycle to texts by the Polish-American author and cultural eminence Czesław Miłosz. For all its undoubted depth and profundity, these texts are not easily rendered in musical terms, and it is to Arlen’s credit that he goes a considerable way towards elucidating them thus. As the latter states, these poems ‘‘dealt with situations echoing my own remembrance of things past’’; a quality which holds good from the trenchant rhetoric of ‘Incantation’, via the sombre rumination of ‘Island’ then the whimsical elegance of ‘In Music’ and controlled fervour of ‘For J.L.’ (with its distinctive obligato for harpsichord), to the confiding intimacy of ‘Recovery’. Inquiring listeners may already have heard these songs with piano on one of the Gramola releases with Christian Immler accompanied by Danny Driver (GRAM98946), but this version – as orchestrated by Kenneth Woods after an arrangement by Eskender Bekmembatov – makes for a richer and wider-ranging context for a vocal line projected with real assurance by Thomas Mole.

Throughout these works, the musicians of the ESO are heard to advantage in the spacious acoustic of Hoddinott Hall and are directed by Woods with sure sense of where to place the emotional emphasis – especially important in conveying the meaning of the songs. If not a major voice, Arlen’s output is always approachable and often thought-provoking. Anyone who has encountered it will enjoy getting to know his music on a larger scale and hearing it played so persuasively: a worthy present for the composer in advance of his 102nd birthday.

These works are available for free public viewing from 13-17 May on the English Symphony Orchestra website

For further information on Walter Arlen, click here – and for the appropriate Gramola Records link click here. Meanwhile click on the names for more on Czesław Miłosz, the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

Another spring symphony – Benjamin Britten

by Ben Hogwood

In the last week Arcana have explored three very different symphonies with a springtime theme or feel. Now here is a fourth, a very different beast, from the pen of Benjamin Britten.

A number of years back I wrote about this piece for my Good Morning Britten blog, marking the composer’s centenary. There is a lot of scholarly debate as to whether this really is a proper symphony, but as Michael Kennedy points out in his booklet note for Britten’s own recording on Decca, it follows in the tradition of choral symphonies from Vaughan Williams and Holst, while taking more influence from the Mahler symphonies in which voices were used.

The Spring Symphony was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and began with a rather different concept. When Britten wrote to the conductor, he said, ‘I am planning it for chorus and soloists, as I think you wanted; but it is a real symphony (the emphasis is on the orchestra) and consequently I am using Latin words’.

Things changed, as Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of the composer details. ‘Both Eric Crozier and Elizabeth Sweeting believe that the Spring Symphony owes its existence to a particular Suffolk landscape, ‘somewhere between Snape and Ufford’, writes Crozier. According to Sweeting, Britten visited this spot on a picnic with her, his housekeeper and Pears. It was ‘a glorious spring day, one of those that seem to be out of time; and she believes that this experience crystallized his love of the Suffolk countryside.’

The work actually enjoyed its first performance in the Netherlands, where, with Koussevitsky’s blessing, Eduard van Beinum conducted the first performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 14 July 1949. A little Latin remained, Britten including the ancient song Sumer is icumen in in the work’s climactic final pages.

Britten says this is ‘a symphony not only dealing with the Spring itself, but with the progress of Winter to Spring and the reawakening of the earth and life which that means’. Carpenter maintains that ‘sweetness is the work’s predominant character – most of the poems are in the pastoral tradition – and it is much to Britten’s credit that the music never becomes cloying. This is largely due to the orchestration. Coming to it from the exigencies of the English Opera Group chamber ensemble, Britten treats the full-size symphony orchestra of the Spring Symphony (triple woodwind, four percussionists and two harps) as a palette from which he selects only a few colours at a time, with stunning results.’

Britten recorded the work first, though the version below is a live concert given by Leonard Bernstein in 1963. Once the ear becomes used to the sound it is easy to appreciate the intensity of the performance from singers and orchestra alike:

An Easter Oratorio

This joyful piece of music was written by Bach in Leipzig, in April 1725. It has four vocal soloists, who take on the parts of Mary Magdalene (alto), the ‘other’ Mary (soprano) and the apostles Simon Peter (tenor) and John (bass).

It is a relatively short work, with a bright orchestra consisting of trumpets, timpani, wind and strings, and its celebratory air is perfect for the festival as it tells of the events of the first Easter day.

Song at Wolfson – Ukraine Fundraiser

It is so gratifying to see all the musical initiatives currently underway to raise money for Ukraine. One that I particularly wanted to draw attention to is a concert taking place at the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium in Wolfson College, Oxford, on 9 June.

British-Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Rozanna Madylus will be joined in a celebration of Ukrainian song by pianist and Oxford Lieder Festival founder Sholto Kynoch. Rozanna is a former Oxford Lieder Young Artist, and the programme will be introduced by Philip Bullock, setting the history of Ukrainian music in cultural context.

The program includes songs by the 19th-century Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko, as well as music by Yakiv Stepovyi, Kyrylo Stetsenko and Stefania Turkewich. The commentary for the concert reveals that Turkewich studied with Joseph Marx and Arnold Schoenberg, before fleeing the Soviets for England in 1946, where she stayed until her death in 1977. Some of her songs have only recently been discovered. With the inclusion of Ukrainian folk songs, the concert promises to be an eye-opening occasion, bringing the music and poetry of Ukraine to the forefront at such an awful time for the country.

The concert will be presented in support of the DEC Ukraine appeal. With generous support from Breckon & Breckon, all costs of the concert are covered and 100% of ticket sales will go directly to the DEC. Although seating is unreserved as usual, tickets are priced at £15, £20 and £25 to help raise as much as possible. If you would like to donate further, please click here to give directly to DEC.

You can book tickets for the concert at the Oxford Lieder website

On record – Myaskovsky: Vocal Works Vol. 1 (Elizaveta Pakhomova, Tatiana Barsukova, Marina Dichenko & Olga Solovieva) (Toccata Classics)


Romances on Verses by Mikhail Lermontov, Op. 40 (1935-6)
Violin Sonata in F major, Op. 70 (1946-7)
Notebook of Lyrics, Op. 72 (1946)

Elizaveta Pakhomova (soprano, Romances), Tatiana Barsukova (soprano, Notebook), Marina Dichenko (violin), Olga Solovieva (piano)

Producer & Engineer Ilya Dontsov (Romances & Notebook), Maria Lenarskaya (Sonata)

Toccata Classics TOCC0355 [68’16”]

Recorded 25 May 2007 at Theatre and Concert Centre, Moscow (Violin Sonata), 29 April & 29 June at Studio One, Russian Radio House, Moscow (Notebook), 23 & 24 January at Production Complex Tonstudio, Mosfilm, Moscow

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics here inaugurates a significant series which is devoted to the complete vocal works by Nikolay Myaskovsky, whose sizable corpus of songs remains the one aspect of his output still to be explored, together with a further recorded appearance for the Violin Sonata.

What’s the music like?

Myaskovsky’s 115 published songs come predominantly from his formative years and early maturity. Notebook of Lyrics is actually his last cycle so conceived, ‘six romances’ dedicated to Mira Mendelson (second wife of Prokofiev) whose texts furnish the opening four songs – their introspective and confessional mood culminating in the anguished pathos of the fourth, How often at night. Mendelson’s translation of two Burns poems round-off this cycle, the fervour of My heart’s in the Highlands followed with the poignancy of My Bonnie Mary.

Appealing as this cycle is as sung by Tatiana Barsukova, the Romances on Verses by Mikhail Lermontov is the highlight here – its 12 songs confirmation of Myaskovsky’s rootedness in a lineage stemming back from Rachmaninoff via Tchaikovsky to Glinka. The initial A Cossack Lullaby marginally outstays its welcome, but thereafter each of these settings renders its text with unerring candour as they build to the inevitable yet understated climax in Forgive me! We will not meet again – its enveloping valediction ideally caught by Elizaveta Pakhomova. Interestingly, these two cycles were premiered at the same Moscow recital by Nina Dorliak and Sviatoslav Richter on 29th April 1947 such as also featured a first performance for the composer’s Violin Sonata by the formidable partnership of David Oistrakh and Lev Oborin.

As was once remarked about buses, one waits ages for an account of the Violin Sonata only for three to come along in as many years. Ironic when the third to appear should have been the first to be recorded: Marina Dichenko’s predating over a decade those by Alexey Lundin with Mikhail Ludsky (Moscow Conservatory Records, coupled with Myaskovsky’s 11 piano sonatas), then Sasha Rozhdestvensky with Viktoria Postnikova (First Hand Record, coupled with violin sonatas by Shebalin and Nechaev). The present recording is that of the definitive version as published in 1948, which aims to clarify aspects of the interplay between this duo as well as the work’s unusual trajectory – a flowing though restrained Allegro followed by a Theme with Twelve Variations and Coda, which latter brings about the decisive conclusion.

Does it all work?

Very much so. The two cycles featured here confirm Myaskovsky to be no less skilled in his writing for voice than for piano, string quartet or orchestra – while his identification with the text at hand comes through almost all these settings. It helps to have so sensitive and attuned a pianist as Olga Solovieva – already familiar to Russian music enthusiasts for recordings of Lyadov (Northern Flowers), Shebalin (Toccata) or Boris Tchaikovsky (Albany and Naxos) – whose subtle resourcefulness duly enhances the expressive immediacy of the music-making.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The various dates and localities yield relatively little difference in terms of their sound quality, while Yuri Abdokov’s annotations are exemplary in terms both of specific works and general context. One hopes this is a series which circumstances will enable to run its course.



You can discover more about this release and make a purchase at the Toccata Classics website.  For more information on Myaskovsky, click here, and for more on pianist Olga Solovieva, click here