On record – Jeremy Huw Williams & Paula Fan – From The Hills of Dream: The Forgotten Songs of Arnold Bax (EM Records)

bax-songs

Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone), Paula Fan (piano)

Bax
The Grand Match (1903). To my Homeland (1904). Leaves, Shadows and Dreams. Viking-Battle-Song (1905). I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden. The Twa Corbies (both 1906). Longing. From the Hills of Dream (both 1907). Landskab (1908). Marguerite (1909). Das tote Kind (1911). Welcome, Somer. Of her Mercy (both 1914). A Leader (1916). The Splendour Falls (1917). Le Chant d’Isabeau. A Rabelaisian Catechism (both 1920). Carrey Clavel (1925) – all world premiere recordings

EM Records EMRCD073 [77’56”]

Producer Jeremy Huw Williams Engineer Wiley Ross

Recorded 13, 14, 16, 22 & 23 October 2020 at Jeff Haskell Recording Studio; 13 November 2020 at Jim Brady Recording Studios, University of Arizona, Tucson, USA

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

EM Records continues its coverage of lesser-known (or the lesser-known music of) English composers in an extensive survey of ‘forgotten’ songs by Arnold Bax, of which only a few were publicly performed in his lifetime with several of them first heard as recently as 2018.

What’s the music like?

Although he is best known for his symphonies and tone poems, songs with piano occupy a not unimportant place in Bax’s output – particularly over his formative years. This selection unfolds chronologically – opening with a lively setting of Moira O’ Neil’s The Grand Match, then continuing pensively with Stephen Gwynn’s To My Homeland in which Bax’s love of Irish culture was first manifest. Two settings of ‘Fiona Macleod’ (aka William Sharp) – the evocative Leaves, Shadows and Dreams, then the (would-be) heroics of Viking-Battle-Song – precede a ravishing take on Percy Shelley’s I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden, before The Twa Corbies finds Bax experimenting (not always successfully) with recitation in this traditional text. Two further settings of Macleod – the poised elegance of Longing, then the searching inwardness of From the Hills of Dream – lead on to this composer’s only treatment of a text in Danish, that of Landskab (Landscape) by Jens Peter Jacobsen, whose three manuscripts imply syntactical problems never adequately resolved despite the music’s gentle eloquence.

Bax set four texts by William Morris, among which the warmly expressive Marguerite went (surprisingly) unheard until now. The sombre symbolism of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’s Das tote Kind is underplayed despite being in the original German, and two rondels by Geoffrey Chaucer – the wistful charm of Welcome, Somer then deft humour of Of her Mercy – exude sentiments to which he is more attuned. This is even more evident in A Leader, a setting of George Russell’s poem that underlines Bax’s emotional involvement with those issues and persons of Ireland’s ill-fated Easter Uprising that ranks among the composer’s finest songs. Few are likely to prefer his dogged setting of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Splendour Falls to that by Britten (or the Delius part-song), whereas the traditional Le Chant d’Isabeau has appealing winsomeness. A Rabelaisian Catechism is a salacious take on another traditional text, with a little help from Vaughan Williams and Wagner, while Carrey Clavel matches Thomas Hardy’s wry observation of scorned love to a tee and makes for a delightful close.

Does it all work?

Most of the time. Almost from the outset, Bax was an inventive but also interventionist setter of texts, such that the poet’s sentiments are not necessarily those conveyed in his songs. This might explain why he increasingly eschewed the genre once he had found his true metier in orchestral and chamber media, so that there are very few songs from the mid-1920s onwards. That said, the literary range of what Bax did set as well as the expressive range of his settings ensures his contribution is a notable one and is enhanced by those songs featured on this disc.

Is it recommended?

Yes, not least through the advocacy of Jeremy Huw Williams whose unstinting advocacy is underpinned by Paula Fan’s perceptive accompaniment. The extensive booklet notes are by the Bax authority Graham Parlett, to whose memory this release is appropriately dedicated.

Listen and Buy

To listen to excerpts from this disc and view purchase options, visit the EM Records website. To read more about Arnold Bax, visit his dedicated composer website, and for more on the performers, click on the names of Jeremy Huw Williams and Paula Fan. Finally for more information on the English Music Festival, click here

On record – Duncan Honeybourne: De Profundis Clamavi (EM Records)

de-profundis-clamavi

Armstrong Gibbs An Essex Rhapsody Op.36 (1921); Ballade in D flat (1940)
Bainton Variations and Fugue in B minor Op.1 (1898); The Making of the Nightingale (1921); Willows (1927)
Bridge Piano Sonata H160 (1921-4)
Britten Night Piece ‘Notturno’ (1963)
Edmunds Piano Sonata in B minor (1938)
Pantscheff Nocturnus V: Wing oor die Branders (2015); Piano Sonata (2017)
Parry Shulbrede Tunes (1914)

Duncan Honeybourne (piano)

EM Records EMRCD070-71 [two discs, 156’46”]

Producer Oscar Torres & Richard Pantcheff
Engineer Oscar Torres

Recorded 20 & 21 August 2020 at Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Never a pianist to pull his punches, Duncan Honeybourne adds to his expanding discography with this extensive survey of British piano music which, written across almost 120 years and evincing a range of styles, more than reinforces the descriptive heading of the overall project.

What’s the music like?

The first disc begins with the Piano Sonata by Christopher Edmunds. Birmingham-born and long active at the School of Music there, he left a sizable output from which the present work impresses through its wide expressive range within modest formal dimensions. The opening Allegro recalls Medtner in its pivoting between fervency and repose, then the Lento strikes a note of heartfelt emotion underlined by its ‘mesto’ marking. Utilizing aspects of scherzo and finale, the closing Allegro returns to more extrovert concerns as it arrives at a virtuosic close.

Edgar Bainton was still in his teens when composing the Variations and Fugue which became his first acknowledged work. Brahms is a key influence, but the music’s motivic and textural discipline ensures a formal focus throughout the nine deftly contrasted variations then into a tensile and vividly cumulative fugue. Remembered primarily for his songs, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs wrote idiomatically for the piano as is demonstrated by the intricate passagework and often bravura writing of An Essex Rhapsody, while the later Ballade exudes deeper emotion – not least an ominous central section with undeniable overtones of war. Part of a compendious sequence exploring different aspects of night, Richard Pantcheff’s Nocturnus V: Wind on the Waves follows a trajectory of impending marine turbulence that duly regains its earlier calm.

Written at the home of his daughter’s family, Shulbrede Tunes finds Hubert Parry reflecting on domestic environs in a methodically constructed cycle – the 10 pieces taking in evocations of the priory and people within. A lively humour informs Bogies and Sprites that Gambol by Nights, with a ruminative pathos to the fore in Prior’s Chamber by Firelight. Here, as in the exuberant Father Playmate, the aging composer’s devotion to Austro-German romanticism results in music which is as affecting as Parry’s orchestral and choral works from this period.

The second disc opens with two further pieces by Bainton. From among his many miniatures, Willow is a limpidly impressionist album-leaf of no mean poignancy, then The Making of the Nightingale evokes this bird’s creation in imaginative terms that are appealingly realized here. Written for the first Leeds International Piano Competition, Benjamin Britten’s Night Piece is the only acknowledged piano work from his maturity – a study in dynamic and timbral nuance of a finesse as to make one regret his stated antipathy for the modern piano on its own terms.

It is the Piano Sonata by Frank Bridge (placed before the Britten) which inevitably dominates this collection, not least as this recording is among the finest from recent years. Testimony to the composer’s response to the carnage of war as well as its impact on his evolving idiom, the three movements unfold as a single cumulative entity – the sizable opening Allegro preceded by a slow introduction whose main motivic elements are gradually elaborated for the ensuing opposition between anguish and eloquence. The savage rhetoric of its close makes the contrast with the Andante’s consoling rumination more acute, the music as if surveying a landscape of memories which elides straight into the final Allegro with its renewed confrontation of earlier motifs – on the way to a stark denouement then a resigned and almost confessional epilogue.

Pantcheff’s almost contemporary Piano Sonata rounds off this collection. Its three movements each carries an inscription from the epic poem The Axion Esti by Odysseus Elytis that sets the tone for a restive and increasingly tumultuous Inquieto, followed by an Elegia whose sombre imagery might feel almost nihilistic were it not for the plaintive expression that emerges in its latter stages, then a finale whose Alla Vortice marking aptly indicates the gradual intensifying of mood which carries this movement – and the work as a whole – towards its explosive close.

Does it all work?

Undoubtedly, when heard as a collection. Honeybourne has been astute in his planning so that each disc can be appreciated as a stand-alone recital in its own right, or as independent halves of an ‘uber-recital’ which even he would be unlikely to undertake in a live context. All except the Bridge, Britten and Parry are receiving their first recordings, and it would be surprising if some pieces did not enjoy greater exposure in future. For his dedication in championing them, and for putting together such an ambitious anthology, Honeybourne can only be commended.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The piano sound is a shade hard at climaxes, while spacious and wide-ranging elsewhere, with detailed notes on each work and composer from various sources including the pianist. It adds up to an impressive release and a highlight of the EM Records catalogue so far.

Listen & Buy

You can discover more about this release and listen to clips at the EM Records website, where you can also purchase the recording. For more on Duncan Honeybourne, visit his website – and for more on Richard Pantcheff click here

On record – Aurora Trio: Crépuscule (EM Records)

crepuscule

Alwyn Two Folk Tunes (1936). Crépuscule (1955). Naïades (1971)
Bax Elegiac Trio (1916)
Lewis Divertimento (1982)
Lipkin Trio (1982)
Patterson Canonic Lullaby (2016)
Rawsthorne Suite (1968)

Aurora Trio [Emma Halnan (flute), Jordan Sian (viola), Heather Wrighton (harp)]

EM Records EMRCD069 [76’52”]

Producer Tom Hammond
Engineer John Croft

Recorded 15-16 February, 13 August 2020 at St John the Evangelist, Oxford

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The Aurora Trio makes its debut for EM Records in a collection of British music featuring flute, viola and harp that spans exactly 100 years and encompasses a variety of approaches with regards to the combining of these distinct yet undeniably complementary instruments.

What’s the music like?

If not the most elaborate of his numerous works for ensemble, Arnold Bax’s Elegiac Trio is among his most affecting as an in-memoriam for those friends who died in the course of the Easter Uprising in Ireland. Although the overall mood rarely moves far from that implied by the title, the undulating emotion filtering through the textural ‘weave’ proves as subtle as it is elusive. Scored for just flute and harp, William Alwyn’s Naïades unfolds on a larger scale and inhabits a wider range of expression as it evokes both the eponymous spirits of antiquity and the environs of the Suffolk village of Blythburgh where it was written, while also being    a ‘fantasy sonata’ whose instruments interact with more than a little improvisatory freedom.

By contrast, the Suite that Alan Rawsthorne wrote for the Robles Trio is typical of his later music in its harmonic astringency and oblique while never abstruse tonal follow-through. A highly personal use of serial elements underpins the elegant opening Andantino as surely as it does a graceful, intermezzo-like Allegretto then the more demonstrative Allegro vigoroso. All these other works are here receiving their first recordings. Alwyn’s Crépuscule for harp offers a foretaste of that masterly concerto Lyra Angelica in its ethereal poise, whereas his Two Folk Tunes emerges as an appealingly contrasted duo – viola and harp as ruminatively combined in Meditation as they are animatedly juxtaposed in Who’ll buy my besoms?

The highlight is undoubtedly the Trio by Malcolm Lipkin, a composer yet to receive his due and who, as the present work affirms, was unafraid to elide between tradition and innovation with strikingly personal results – whether in the terse emotional contrasts of its Variations, tense and increasingly soulful inwardness of its Intermezzo or purposeful onward progress of a Finale whose impetus subsides towards the pensively fatalistic coda. Canonic Lullaby has Paul Patterson bring flute and harp into limpid accord, while Paul Lewis’s Divertimento puts all three instruments through their paces in a lively March, before embracing them in the lyrical Love Song then cordially sending them on their way in the nonchalant Waltz.

Does it all work?

Yes, given the relative stylistic range of the music featured and, moreover the quality of these performances. Care has evidently been taken to assemble the eight works into a cohesive and satisfying sequence such as this ensemble might tackle at one of its recitals, and which flows well as an overall programme. The playing leaves nothing to be desired in terms of accuracy, while the relative personality of each composer cannot be gainsaid. Ideally the release would encourage composers from the middle and younger generations to write for this combination.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The recording is excellent, with the frequently awkward balance between instruments expertly judged, and there are detailed annotations on both the works and their composers. It all adds up to a worthwhile release which deserves to be followed up, hopefully on this label.

Listen & Buy

You can discover more about this release and listen to clips at the EM Records website, where you can also purchase the recording. For more on the Aurora trio, you can visit their website

On record – Holst: Christmas Music (Godwine Choir) (EM Records)

Holst
In the Bleak Midwinter H71 (1904)
Four Old English Carols H82 (1907)
Two Carols H91 (1907/16)
Christmas Day H109 (1910)a
Lullay my Liking H129 (1916)
This Have I Done for My True Love H128 (1916)
Of One that is so Fair and Bright H130 (1916)
Bring us in Good Ale H131 (1916)
Three Carols H133 (1916/17)a
A Dream of Christmas H139 (1917)a
Wassail Song H182 (c1931)
Scherzo H192 (1933, arr. Brasier)**
Four Organ Voluntaries HApp8-11 (1890/1, transc. John Wright)*

*John Wright (organ); **Richard Brasier, **Tom Bell (organ duet); Godwine Choir / Alex Davon Wetton, Edward Hughes with a Douglas Tang (organ); b Charlotte Evans (oboe); c Alison Moncrieff-Kelly (cello)

EM Records EMR CD0062 [82’42”]

Producer / Engineer Myles Eastwood

Recorded 13 & 14 July 2019 at St Jude-on-the-Hill, London; **22 August 2019 at Hereford Cathedral

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

EM Records continues its enterprising release schedule with this anthology of seemingly all Holst’s choral music written for or with Christmas in mind, along with first recorded outings of original pieces plus a transcription for organ that in themselves explain this album’s title.

What’s the music like?

As incrementally wide-ranging as might be expected from a composer whose never wore his distinctive personality on his sleeve. Earliest of the choral works is also the most famous – a setting of In the Bleak Midwinter that will be heard the Christian world over these next few weeks (no comment as to a preference between this and Harold Darke’s setting!). Intricately wrought in rhythm and texture, the Four Old English Carols exude a luminously Medieval atmosphere, as also the Two Carols with their modally evocative harmony. Most ambitious among these earlier items, Christmas Day alternates before superimposing its four carols in this heady and engaging medley – of which Holst’s subsequently dismissive view says more about his constantly changing stylistic preoccupations than any intrinsic failing of this work.

Almost all the latter choral pieces date from around the time of Holst’s move to Thaxted and the festival he initiated there. The call-and-response of Lullay my Liking retains its enduring charm, but how surprising I Saw Three Ships has not previously been recorded, its vivacity as appealing as the purposefulness of Personent hodie or gaiety of Masters in this Hall. Holst’s view that Of One that is so Fair and Bright ‘‘should be done simply like a good village choir’’ might give pause for thought, its rhythmic flow as exacting as the cumulative vocal weave of This Have I Done for My True Love or the accelerating part-writing of Bring us in Good Ale. There is an almost impressionistic allure to the little-known A Dream of Christmas, with the Wassail Song a reminder of the ribald element that often surfaces in this composer’s music.

Even Holst’s admirers are likely unfamiliar with his output for solo organ, if only because the four voluntaries in question have gone unheard since the teenage composer tried them out in his Cheltenham schooldays. Modest in scope, the first three are an intriguing parallel to what his contemporary Ives was coming up with across the Atlantic – thus the resolute March, the whimsical Allegretto Pastorale and the capering Postlude. Much more ambitious, the Funeral March is an animated processional whose opulent climaxes and quirky registrations admit of more personal traits. From Alpha to Omega – the Scherzo being the only movement realized of the symphony upon which Holst was working at his death, arranged here for organ duet by Richard Brasier such that its contrapuntal dexterity and fluid evolution are acutely conveyed.

Does it all work?

Absolutely. Holst was a master of many guises; his Christmas output is unfailingly evocative for all its technical demands. It helps that performances by the London-based Godwine Choir are so attentive to this music’s spirit, as are Brasier and Tom Bell in the Scherzo transcription.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The Hampstead and Hereford venues are ideal acoustics, and the booklet note includes an overview of choral items by Chris Cope – Chairman of the Holst Society, whose extensive recording programme will result in much unfamiliar music being brought to light.

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

Gurney
The Western Playland (and of Sorrow) (1920)
Edward, Edward (1914)
By A Bierside (1916)
String Quartet in D minor (1924-5)
Howells
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.